GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the boastful self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, sat in a small blue chair for hours at the opening of his capital murder trial — holding his tongue.
As Saturday wore on, it became clear that Mohammed and the four other defendants were staging a silent protest, aimed at both confounding the U.S. military court system here and demonstrating to the outside world that they do not acknowledge America’s control over them.
Mohammed, his beard dyed henna orange, often lowered his head and slumped deep into the chair. He occasionally fidgeted with his glasses. His eyes expressed neither the old outrage nor the amusement of his last court appearance here four years ago.
Two other defendants abruptly leapt to their feet at one point, but only to stand, kneel and lie on the gray carpeting in prayer.
One defendant, the alleged head of the terrorist cell for three of the four Sept. 11 pilots, nonchalantly flipped through the Economist magazine. Another feigned sleep.
The arraignment was expected to draw bombastic pleas of guilty or not guilty from the top Al Qaeda operatives known as the Gitmo 5. But when Judge James Pohl asked each of the men how he pleaded, none of them spoke. Instead, their attorneys said the men were deferring their pleas.
The charges include conspiracy, murder, aircraft hijacking and terrorism. The charge sheet is 87 pages long and includes the names of the nearly 3,000 people who died the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. When defense lawyers said two of the detainees wanted the charge sheet read aloud in court, the judge said that was their right. For the next several hours, late into the night, it was read both in English and Arabic, a paragraph at a time. The hearing finally ended more than 13 hours after it began.
Pohl scheduled a motions hearing for June 12 to begin sorting out what evidence and testimony will be allowed in the trial. He discussed a tentative trial date in May 2013.
The highly anticipated military commission proceeding is the most serious to be launched under the new rules imposed by the Obama administration. Under the rules, information derived from torture is not allowed and defense attorneys cannot bring up anything their clients tell them, for fear classified information will be revealed.
The beginning of the trial is the biggest public national security event since the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden a year ago. It could have political repercussions for Obama, who won the White House in part by pledging to close the Guantanamo prison and move the trials to the U.S. He did neither.
The last time Mohammed and his inner circle appeared in a courtroom here, they bragged of their past deeds and asked the U.S. to make them martyrs. “This is what I wish!” Mohammed said.
This time, when they refused to answer questions from Pohl, he moved on to pretrial motions and other legal matters. The defense attorneys argued that their clients’ silence indicated their deep mistrust of U.S. military law.
They were protesting past interrogation techniques at a CIA black site, the lawyers said — Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times — and harsh mistreatment at this detainee prison on the southern rim of Cuba.
“What happened to these men has affected their ability to focus on these proceedings,” said Cheryl Bormann, a Chicago criminal defense lawyer who surprised onlookers by appearing in the courtroom dressed in a black Islamic abaya.
She even suggested that some female soldiers and lawyers who came to court in skirts exposed too much leg and deeply offended the religious virtues of the five defendants.
Pohl, an Army colonel who received his law degree from Pepperdine University, sat in a high-backed chair with the seals of the U.S. armed forces on the wall behind him. As night fell, he swayed back and forth. Sometimes he expressed deep frustration, other times anger, still other times a keen determination to keep the case on track.
“He can participate or not; that’s his choice,” the judge said, referring to Mohammed sitting mute. “But he does not have a choice from moving this commission forward.”
Three hours into the hearing, Ramzi Binalshib, the alleged pilot cell manager, waved his finger and burst out at the judge. “Maybe you aren’t going to see me anymore and they’ll say it was a suicide,” he said.
He compared life at Camp Justice in Guantanamo to the brutal reign of longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi, who was killed in October. “It’s about the treatment we have received at the camps,” he said. “You want to kill us.”
The judge asked for silence, and Binalshib quickly went quiet.
Moments after the 9 a.m. gavel, Mohammed, sitting closest to the judge, and the others removed their earphones. When the Arabic was piped in through loudspeakers, it was so jarring and overlapped the lawyers and the judge that exasperated translators complained they could not keep up.
Mohammed, 47, did not appear to care — a far different posture from his past activities. A former college student in North Carolina, the man known as KSM allegedly circled the globe designing numerous terrorist plots, and has said the Sept. 11 attacks were his idea. When the World Trade Center towers crumbled in Lower Manhattan, he reportedly sobbed and cried, “God is great!”
His civilian attorney, David Nevin, said “he’s deeply concerned about the fairness of this proceeding and the process that has brought us here.” His client did not want to participate because of what he considers past torture, the lawyer said. “What Mr. Mohammed has been through, and with all these shadowy figures around here, it is alarming and affects his ability to go forward with this arraignment.”
So, he told the judge, “if he doesn’t respond, it represents a choice on his part to decline to communicate with the court.”
The judge said he would still move forward with the trial.
Mohammed’s attorney said the defendants were strip searched before being taken into the courtroom, and that they found that very “demeaning.”
The judge said he would deal with mistreatment matters in the future. But he added that he understood the need for heavy security precautions at the detainee prison.
The courthouse is surrounded by heavy barbed and concertina wire. Guards were positioned around the perimeter. Inside the courtroom, a phalanx of soldiers in camouflage khakis took seats near the defendants.
At one point, Walid bin Attash, an alleged Al Qaeda training camp steward, was tied down to his chair in shoulder restraints.
His attorney said Attash was in pain, but authorities gave no reason for the restraints, other than to say he acted up while being moved from his holding cell to the courtroom. When he later agreed to cooperate, the restraints were lifted. Then he refused to cooperate by sitting in silence.
Also in the expansive courtroom were Ammar al Baluchi, a.k.a. Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, a college-trained computer engineer, alleged Al Qaeda financier and Mohammed’s nephew; and Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi, another alleged financier.
Ten victims and relatives of those who died in the attacks were chosen by lottery from among 250 to attend the start of the trial.
“I would have preferred this would have been in federal court,” said Blake Allison of Lyme, N.H., whose 49-year-old wife, Anna, was aboard the first plane that hit the first tower. “The public needs to see how in the world you could defend these horrible criminals, and how the prosecutor will be able to prove to the country and the world this is a fair and just system.”
Disagreeing was Christina Russell from Rockaway Beach, N.Y., whose brother-in-law Stephen Russell, a New York firefighter, died. She said, simply, “This is the right place for this.”