9/11 Plotters in Court Not the Courteous Terrorists Everyone Hoped They’d Be

The hearing for the self-proclaimed mastermind of the September 11th terrorist attacks, plus four other conspirators, got off to a chaotic start on Saturday, as the defendants ignored the judge, refused to acknowledge the proceedings, and generally pursued other interests, including light arts and crafts.

Here are some of the ways Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid Bin Attash, Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, and Binal Shibh turned a hearing everyone thought would last a couple hours into a hearing that lasted almost 13 hours (including meals and prayer breaks):

  • Taking off the earphones that provided Arabic translations of the English court proceedings, so that interpreters had to be brought in to translate live
  • Refusing to acknowledge any questions from the judge, Army Col. James Pohl
  • Interrupting the proceedings to yell that the guards at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp were going to kill them and claim they'd committed suicide
  • Insisting that the 20+ page document detailing the charges against them be read aloud, rather than allowing it to be deferred for later in the case, as the judge requested (this apparently added more than two hours to the hearing)
  • Partially disrobing (one of the men removed his shirt at one point)
  • Passing around a copy of The Economist and leafing through the articles
  • Making a paper airplane and placing it on top of a microphone
  • One of the men, Walid bin Attash, was wheeled into the room tied to a chair after officials said he struggled with guards outside the courtroom doors. He was freed from the restraints after agreeing he would not disrupt the court proceedings.

    Attash, who lost a leg in Afghanistan, uses a prosthetic limb. NPR reports that his leg arrived separately.

    He is charged with acting as the number two coordinator for the so-called "plane operation."

    Lawyers for the men said they believed their clients were not responding to questions because their clients believed the tribunal was unfair.

    The session wrapped around 10:30 p.m, with none of the men entering pleas. Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald explains why this is standard procedure for military commissions:

    That's because, just like at a military court martial, entering a plea at a military commission cuts short an accused war criminal's rights at the Guantanamo war court - the right, for example, to argue that some charges are not lawful, and to see at least some of the evidence the prosecution has built.

    Yesterday marked the beginning of the government's second attempt at prosecuting the suspects. The prisoners were first presented before a military commission in 2008, but the case was halted when it was announced they would, instead, be tried in federal court in New York City, a few blocks away from the World Trade Center site.

    Following New Yorkers' protests (city officials cited astronomical security costs as well as opposition from victims' families), plus a Congress-imposed ban on transferring Guantanamo Bay prisoners to the U.S., the charges against the men were refiled under a reformed military commission system which forbids the use of testimony obtained through torture.

    Those charges include terrorism as well as 2,976 counts of murder.

    If convicted, each of the men could be sentenced to death, though the trial is expected to take years to complete followed by years of appellate review.

    They're going to get through a lot of issues of The Economist.

    [CNN // NPR// Courtroom sketch by Janet Hamlin via AP]