GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba: Five Guantanamo prisoners accused of plotting the September 11 attacks refused to answer a U.S. military judge's questions on Saturday in a chaotic court hearing in which defense lawyers sought to cast the war crimes tribunal as unfair.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed architect of the hijacked plane attacks in 2001, and his four co-defendants all exercised their right to indefinitely delay entering a plea to murder and terrorism charges that carry the death penalty.
Two co-defendants insisted that the 87-page charge sheet be read in court and prosecutors began doing that even though the hearing had already stretched on for more than 10 hours.
The charge sheet lists the names of all 2,976 people killed when the hijacked commercial jetliners slammed into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, and was expected take hours to read out.
Mohammed, a 47-year-old Pakistani, looked haggard and his full, scraggly beard was tinted red with henna. He wore a white turban and white tunic.
The military tribunal hearing in the top-security courtroom at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba was the first time the notorious detainees had been seen in public in three years.
The Islamist militants are accused of conspiring with Osama bin Laden, murder in violation of the laws of war, hijacking, terrorism and other charges stemming from the 2001 attacks that propelled the United States into a deadly, costly and ongoing global war against al Qaeda and its supporters.
A previous attempt to prosecute them in Guantanamo was halted when the Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to move the case into a New York federal court. The tribunal began anew on Saturday with a disorderly arraignment hearing that took most of the day to deal with two routine matters: whether the defendants wanted to keep their Pentagon-appointed lawyers and ascertaining the judge's qualifications and impartiality.
As Mohammed and his co-defendants refused to answer his questions, the exasperated judge Army Colonel James Pohl struggled to keep the proceedings on track. "Why is this so hard?" he asked at one point.
Pohl set the next hearing for June 12 and said it would be at least a year before the trial started.
Defense attorney David Nevin said Mohammed refused to respond to the judge's questions because "?he is deeply concerned about the fairness of the proceeding" and had been tortured.
PRAYING IN COURT
Yemeni defendant Ramzi Binalshibh knelt on the courtroom floor and prayed as a row of burly guards in camouflage uniforms kept a close watch but did not interfere.
Later he stood and shouted, and seemed to be saying that the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was being held at Guantanamo. He said tricks were being played on the defendants inside the prison camp and that "maybe they are going to kill us at the camp ... and say that we are committing suicide."
Guards strapped Yemeni defendant Walid bin Attash into a restraining chair and wheeled him into the courtroom, then brought him the prosthetic leg that replaces the right one he lost during a 1997 battle in Afghanistan.
The judge said bin Attash had apparently refused to enter the courtroom voluntarily but his lawyer later denied that. Bin Attash was freed him from the restraints after promising to behave but stripped off his shirt and undershirt when his attorney said he had been scarred by abuse in custody.
The defendants refused to listen through earphones to Arabic translations of the judge's questions, so the judge ordered the translation broadcast over a loudspeaker, which sometimes drowned out the conversation between the lawyers and the judge.
An attorney for bin Attash, Cheryl Borman, who wore a black hijab and long black robe, told the court that mistreatment of her client at Guantanamo had interfered with his ability to take part in the proceedings. She asked that female paralegals and FBI agents sitting with the prosecution team dress with cultural sensitivity so that the defendants would not be forced to look away as their religion requires. The women in question were wearing pantsuits and knee-length skirts and blazers.
The defendants prayed and chatted among themselves during recesses, and passed around a copy of The Economist magazine.
When they refused to answer his questions, the judge ruled that they would be represented by the lawyers assigned to them. In addition to their military lawyers, each has a civilian attorney with experience in death penalty cases.
The defendants were all held for more than three years in secret CIA prisons before being sent to Guantanamo in 2006, and all have said they were tortured there. The CIA said Mohammed alone was subjected 183 times to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding.
But when the defense attorneys tried to discuss the way the defendants had been treated and used the word ?"torture" a closed-circuit TV feed of the hearings for journalists and family members of victims was interrupted.
The judge grew testy when the defense lawyers repeatedly tried to raise the torture issue. ?"We'll get to it when I said we'll get to it," Pohl snapped at one of the lawyers.
Defense lawyers quizzed the judge about his reading habits and judicial experience and whether he, as a soldier, considered himself to be a victim of the September 11 attacks.
"?I'm not a victim of 9-11. What I am is a human being who saw things that sadden me," Pohl replied.
A small group of people whose relatives died in the attacks were chosen by lottery to travel to the Caribbean base to watch the hearing from behind a glass wall in the spectators' gallery.
Cliff Russell, whose firefighter brother Stephen Russell, 40, was killed at the World Trade Center, said he was comfortable with the death penalty for the defendants and wished them "the worst death possible."
"I think I have all the evidence I need," said Russell, who helped recover the remains of 23 people from the ashes and rubble of the Trade Center. "I tasted death, literally."
He said the taste lingered in his throat and that he hoped that the trial "would be the process that gets rid of that for me." AGENCIES?