GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba, (AP) – The military expects a confrontational hearing when the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and four alleged confederates are brought before a Marine colonel presiding over their war-crimes tribunal.
At an arraignment scheduled for Thursday, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was expected to make his first public appearance since being captured in Pakistan in 2003, held in CIA custody at secret sites and transferred to Guantanamo in 2006.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Tom Hartmann, a top tribunal official, told dozens of journalists late Wednesday he expects defense lawyers will robustly argue points with prosecutors and Judge Ralph Kohlmann on behalf of their clients, who face the death penalty.
“Expect to see challenges tomorrow, and the intensity of the process,” Hartmann said at a briefing in an abandoned aircraft hangar near the courthouse at this isolated U.S. Navy base.
Army Col. Steve David, chief defense counsel for the tribunals, said the military commissions — which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2006 as unconstitutional before they were altered and resurrected months later — are “fundamentally flawed.”
“We will zealously identify and expose each and every” flaw, he said.
The tribunals have been mired in confusion over courtroom rules and dogged by delays.
Military commissions have been conducted since George Washington used them after the end of the Revolutionary War, but this is the first time the United States has used them during an ongoing conflict, Hartmann said.
Mohammed is represented by two officers from the Navy and the Air Force. Two civilian attorneys from Idaho, including one who defended a client accused in the white supremacist Ruby Ridge case, also represent the Pakistani.
Defense attorneys for the five detainees accused in the Sept. 11 attack that killed 2,973 people say the U.S. is rushing the case to trial to influence the presidential election. They recently asked Kohlmann to throw out the case and remove Hartmann, who was accused of political meddling by a former chief prosecutor for the military commissions.
Two weeks ago, Deputy Secretary of State Gordon England declared that providing “fair trials” at Guantanamo is the No. 1 legal services obligation for the Defense Department, said Hartmann, the legal adviser to the tribunals. He said he has not been asked to recuse himself from the upcoming trial.
Mohammed will be arraigned simultaneously with the four men inside the high-tech courthouse, part of the “expeditionary legal complex” arrayed on an abandoned airfield at Guantanamo. Guards will be near the men but no firearms are allowed in the courtroom, said Army Col. Wendy Kelly. Mohammed and the other four detainees can be restrained by retractable leg chains hidden underneath the raised courtroom floor if they become unruly, Kelly said.
The arraignment will launch the highest-profile test yet of a tribunal system that faces an uncertain future.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down an earlier system as unconstitutional in 2006, and is to rule this month on the rights of Guantanamo prisoners, potentially delaying or halting the proceedings. And with less than eight months remaining in President Bush’s term, candidates Barack Obama and John McCain both say they want to close the military’s offshore detention center.
Obama opposed the Military Commissions Act that in 2006 resurrected the military commissions, but McCain supported it. The modular courtroom can be taken down and “sent to Fort Bragg, Fort Lewis, or any installation that needs a big courtroom,” Kelly said.
Dozens of U.S. and international journalists arrived at Guantanamo on Wednesday on a military plane for the joint arraignment, which the military expects to last just one day.
The five prisoners will be formally notified of the nature of the charges, will be told of their rights to attorneys and will be given the opportunity to enter a plea, though they do not have to enter one, Hartmann said.
All five are charged with murder in violation of the law of war, conspiracy, attacking civilians, terrorism and other crimes.
The four defendants due to appear with Mohammed are: Ramzi Binalshibh, said to have been the main intermediary between the hijackers and al-Qaeda leaders; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, known as Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew and lieutenant of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; al-Baluchi’s assistant, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi; and Waleed bin Attash, a detainee known as Khallad, who allegedly selected and trained some of the 19 hijackers.