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Five 9/11 suspects defiant in court

Times Staff Writer

When a visibly aged Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four alleged accomplices were reunited in a sterile military courtroom here Thursday, they laughed and chatted like old school chums and apparently rekindled their common cause: to defy their American enemies or die trying.

Strident and unremorseful over the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks they allegedly plotted, four of the men declared their eagerness to be executed.

Asked by the tribunal’s chief judge, Marine Col. Ralph H. Kohlmann, if he recognized that he could be put to death if convicted, Mohammed said: “This is what I wish. I’m looking to be a martyr for a long time.”

Sporting a bushy gray beard and elastic-banded spectacles and looking a generation older than his 43 years, the man known to his interrogators and captors as KSM occasionally stood to make random observations to the crowded courtroom or to adjust his white tunic and head covering. At times he looked indifferent to the life-or-death issues around him.

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Alleged Al Qaeda training camp steward Walid bin Attash, a boyish-looking 30-year-old, had a question for Kohlmann. “Will we be buried at Guantanamo or will our bodies be returned to our countries?” he asked dispassionately.

Ramzi Binalshibh, believed to have coordinated a Hamburg, Germany, sleeper cell while three of the four Sept. 11 pilots waited for their orders to hijack U.S. airliners, reminded the court that he had tried to be part of the suicide mission but was denied a U.S. visa.

“I have been seeking martyrdom for five years!” Binalshibh said when warned that he could face death if convicted. “If this martyrdom happens today, I will welcome it. God is great! God is great! God is great!”

Binalshibh was the only defendant wearing shackles on his bulging ankles, a restraint Guantanamo authorities declined to explain. With the courtroom ringed by camouflage-clad guards and the entire structure surrounded by concentric rings of razor-wire-topped fences, the likelihood of escape appeared remote.

Ali Abdul Aziz Ali told Kohlmann he shared the views of the three before him who praised martyrdom and replied nonchalantly to Kohlmann’s question as to whether he knew the ultimate penalty could be levied against him: “Naturally. I know.”

Ali, who insisted to the court that his real name was Ammar al Baluchi, spoke in fluent English, mocking the judge’s earnest assurances of his rights to legal assistance.

A nephew of Mohammed and a college-trained computer engineer, Ali said it was late for his U.S. jailers to be offering him a lawyer.

“Everything that has happened here is unfair and unjust. Since the first time I was arrested, I might have appreciated that,” he said of the offer of free legal representation.

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“The government is talking about lawyers free of charge. The government also tortured me free of charge all these years,” he said.

Kohlmann told him he considered it unwise for the defendants to insist on representing themselves, to which Ali retorted, “For me, this proceeding in its entirety is unwise.”

Though the defendants were defiant of the military authority around them, none mentioned Al Qaeda or its leader, Osama bin Laden. Neither did they express remorse for the nearly 3,000 victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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Past confessions

Mohammed’s defiance had been expected, as he confessed to masterminding the attacks during a March 2007 hearing here after being transferred six months earlier from secret CIA custody abroad. He also claims to have wielded the saber that beheaded kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan shortly after the 2001 attacks.

Kohlmann said he would issue a schedule for motions and a trial date after further reflection, although he seemed inclined to get the case moving as soon as possible. Prosecutors have suggested mid-September for the start of trial.

The judge also deferred ruling on whether Binalshibh and Saudi suspect Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi should be allowed to reject their military lawyers and represent themselves.

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In Thursday’s proceeding, which stretched over 10 hours to include breaks for lunch and prayers, it was apparent that Mohammed was directing the effort by the defendants to present a united front in refusing to work with military defense lawyers.

He and Binalshibh interjected comments and observations when other defendants were being questioned. The Army lawyer for Hawsawi said his client had come into the courtroom willing to work with his defense team until Mohammed taunted him.

“What, are you in the American army now?” the lawyer, Maj. Jon Jackson, quoted Mohammed as saying.

When asked by the judge if he accepted Jackson and the rest of the team to represent him, Hawsawi echoed his codefendants: “I want to defend myself, by myself.”

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Their animated exchanges with Kohlmann in the high-security courtroom at this U.S. naval base in southern Cuba exposed what appeared to be an eagerness to collaborate with one another and coordinate their actions. They laughed and chatted for half an hour from their seats at the ends of five long defense tables before Kohlmann gaveled the arraignment into session.

Dressed in the white tunics, skullcaps and head wraps of their Islamic cultures, they conferred, stage-whispering in Arabic from one table to the next, well into Kohlmann’s dry recitation of the tribunal’s rules and procedures.

The judge sought to hold the arraignment to a strict timetable, rejecting numerous defense appeals for delay to allow the lawyers more time to convince their clients to accept representation.

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Quoting the Koran

Nevertheless, the defendants often appeared to be in command of the proceedings, professing their contempt for their captors and at times provoking laughs from the gallery of media and human rights observers behind a soundproofed glass wall at the back of the courtroom.

In a melodious voice, Mohammed chanted verses from the Koran expressing faith in Allah to protect him, then provided their English translations, observing that his linguistic skills seemed better than those of the tribunal’s official Arabic interpreter.

Mohammed denounced U.S. law as immoral, citing some states’ recognition of gay marriage. “Evil laws are not the laws of God, laws allowing same-sexual marriage,” he told the court. “I consider all American laws under the Constitution to be evil.”

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He also chastised Kohlmann for telling civilian defense lawyers with expertise in capital cases to sit down and be quiet when they objected to his refusal to postpone proceedings. And he deemed the tribunal “an inquisition, not a trial.”

“After five years of torturing . . . you transfer us to Inquisition Land in Guantanamo,” he said.

At times he was exceedingly deferential, leaving court spectators uncertain if he was mocking Kohlmann.

“Go right ahead,” he offered when the judge interrupted one of his lengthier assurances that God was on his side.

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During a midday break in the arraignment, Mohammed was shown a courtroom sketch artist’s rendition of him, which he rejected, saying he didn’t like how his nose was drawn. Under the Geneva Conventions protection against “parading” prisoners of war, captives have the right to approve or reject images of themselves before they can be made public.

He told the pool artist, Janet Hamlin, that he would approve the sketch if she looked at his FBI picture -- the infamous image of a disheveled, dark-haired Mohammed in a white undershirt -- and modify the feature to match that.

“It was a little beaky,” Hamlin conceded of the original sketch.

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carol.williams@latimes.com


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