The only indicted detainee mentioned in the Sept. 11 commission report made a defiant first appearance before the war crimes tribunal Thursday, vowing, “I’m going to make this easy.” He said he had taken up arms against the United States and would proudly serve any sentence.
Ghassan Abdullah Al Sharbi denounced the tribunal and his detention as illegitimate and rejected the Navy lawyer assigned to represent him.
He declared himself ready to concede to -- “I don’t like the word confession,” he said -- all the accusations of conspiracy to commit terrorism that have been brought against him.
Appearing in the military commissions courtroom in tan prison garb, the 31-year-old Saudi insisted on serving as his own legal counsel, as have three more of the 10 charged suspects.
Sharbi, who holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Arizona’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University and speaks fluent English, is charged with plotting with other Al Qaeda suspects to build remote-controlled explosive devices for use against U.S. forces who invaded Afghanistan a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Sharbi’s name appears in a footnote of the Sept. 11 commission report to Congress, noting he was enrolled at Embry-Riddle when Al Qaeda was allegedly encouraging Muslim sympathizers to enroll in flight training in Arizona.
Although he is not accused of direct involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the report noted he had sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden weeks earlier.
Little was known about the Saudi suspect before his appearance Thursday. He had refused until this week to meet with any attorney, and a transcript of his only other appearance in the tribunal process was released less than two months ago in a massive document dump by the Pentagon after a Freedom of Information Act court order.
“I did not come here to defend myself,” Sharbi told the presiding officer in his case, Navy Capt. Daniel O’Toole. “I came in to tell you I did what I did and am willing to pay the price, no matter what it is. Even if I spend hundreds of years in jail, that would be an honor to me.”
O’Toole observed that Sharbi is articulate and intelligent but ruled he is not qualified to serve as his own attorney.
Navy Lt. William C. Kuebler, assigned by the government to represent Sharbi, told O’Toole he had been advised by legal authorities in California, where he is licensed to practice law, that it would be an ethics violation for him to defend the accused against his wishes.
O’Toole said he would take under consideration Kuebler’s motion on the ethics issue and his challenge to O’Toole’s ruling that Sharbi can’t represent himself.
Sharbi had refused until Sunday to meet with Kuebler, and the chief defense counsel, Marine Col. Dwight Sullivan, said his staff had no idea how Sharbi planned to present himself until he appeared Thursday morning.
Soft-spoken but imbued with a cut-to-the-chase impatience, Sharbi told the court: “I’m going to make this easy for you guys: I’m proud of what I did and there isn’t any reason of hiding.”
He said he was planning to testify that “I fought against the United States. I took up arms.”
Questioned by O’Toole if he understood the tribunal’s rules and procedures, Sharbi said he didn’t, but promised to behave in the courtroom.
“I’m not going to be violent or cause trouble. I’m not going to make commotions,” he said.
Asked if he was familiar with the tribunal’s purpose, Sharbi remarked: “Same circus, different clown.”
The defendant, with long, thinning hair and a full beard, sat with his hands folded throughout the preliminary proceedings after declining to have Kuebler speak on his behalf. He quoted the military attorney as saying he also considered the war crimes tribunal illegitimate and “a black eye” on the United States’ image.
After O’Toole repeatedly queried the defendant about whether he would agree to be represented by any lawyer, Sharbi replied: “I understand and I advise you not to waste time with me on that point. It’s my decision and I’m not going to change it.”
Sharbi was arrested March 28, 2002, at an alleged Al Qaeda safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan, along with two other charged detainees here, fellow Saudi Jabran Said bin Al-Qahtani and Algerian Sufyian Barhoumi.
In his Combatant Status Review Tribunal, a forum at which all 558 Guantanamo detainees appeared between July 2004 and January 2005, Sharbi denounced the United States as “the infidel against God” and deplored capitalism and homosexuality as evidence of U.S. society’s perversions.
“May God help me fight the infidels or the unfaithful ones,” he chanted at the end of the review hearing, according to a transcript recently released to the Associated Press after a Freedom of Information challenge. It was not clear from the documents when the hearing was held.
Ten of the 490 detainees now at Guantanamo have been charged with offenses. The chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Morris Davis, said this week charges were expected soon against about two dozen others, including possible capital charges. Another Pentagon official announced that 141 other detainees had been deemed eligible for release or transfer and would be departing the island.