In 9/11 Trial, A Struggle For Control

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By most obvious measures, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, is utterly powerless; not only is he locked in the most secure prison in the world, he has been physically broken: subjected to harsh interrogations, waterboarded 183 times.  But during his arraignment on Saturday at Guantanamo Bay, Mohammed and his four co-defendants used every tool at their disposal—legal or otherwise— to exert a surprising amount of control over the proceedings.

Even before the first question could be asked, Mohammed threw the court off-script, refusing to put on his headphones to hear the Arabic translations. (David Nevins, Mohammed’s lawyer told the judge, “the reason he is not putting the earphones in his ears has to do with the torture that was imposed on him.  It’s not a choice.”)  The accused are required to understand the proceedings, so Arabic translations were played on the court loudspeaker after each statement, instead of the simultaneous, UN-style translation the headphones would have provided.  That meant all parties would have to speak in, “bite-size chunks,” as presiding Judge Col. James Pohl put it, and that everything would literally take twice as long—thirteen hours by the time the day was done.  The loudspeaker approach also meant that the entire Arabic translation was entered into the court record—raising the possibility the defense could later raise objections based on inaccurate translations.

The other four defendants followed Mohammed’s lead in refusing to wear headphones, and then followed his lead in refusing to speak to the court.  It was remarkable to witness the degree to which Mohammed still had these men in thrall, even in a military tribunal that had a wall lined with over twenty imposing soldiers assigned to watch over them. But they have followed Mohammed for a long time.  All were involved in the 9/11 plot; one is Mohammed’s nephew, and another, Walid bin Attash, would have been the 20th hijacker had he been able to get a US visa.

The men’s refusal to respond required the judge to assign them counsel and enter a not-guilty plea for each of them.  But even before that process was complete, other disruptions began.  As Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s lawyer was in mid-sentence, co-defendant Ramzi bin al Shibh abruptly stood up and began praying.  Judge Pohl gently admonished him, pointing out that, “When detainees get up, guards get excited.”  Later, co-defendant Ramzi bin al Shibh interrupted his lawyer in even more dramatic fashion, shouting, “…maybe you are not going to see me anymore… They are going to kill us at the camp and say we have committed suicide!”

Two and a half hours after court was disrupted for al Shibh’s unscheduled prayer, the court recessed for Zuhr, the Muslim noontime prayer.  But the defendants did not use their break for praying—after entering the courtroom, the four men laid out their prayer mats, and al Shibh belted out the azaan, the Islamic call to prayer, loud enough to be heard through the double-paned, otherwise soundproof glass that separates the gallery from the courtroom (the gallery hears the court speakers on a 40 second delay for security reasons).  The prayers delayed the start of court for an additional 20 minutes.  Judge Pohl later admonished the men not to abuse the religious rights they’ve been given.

As the day wore on, the four defendants, initially stone-faced and silent, faces buried in Q’urans, grew more cheerful and engaged. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed began to confer with his lawyer, taking notes and listening raptly to the lawyers speak.  Walid bin Attash made a paper airplane and put it on top of his microphone; later, while his lawyer was speaking, he pulled off his shirt to show his alleged torture scars.  The judge told him to stop, threatening to remove him from the courtroom.  After Asr, a second afternoon prayer, the four men were smiling and laughing amongst themselves before the court reconvened.

To close an extraordinarily long day, the 9/11 family members—allotted a place in the gallery alongside the press—were revolted and shocked by what may have been a final act of defiance.  As the participants were filing out of the court, defendant Ramzi bin al Shibh looked toward the family members, smiled, and gave a “thumbs-up” sign.

Defense lawyers claimed the next day that al Shibh was actually giving the signal to his court translator, but 9/11 Family Member Eddie Bracken wasn’t buying it.  He told the press he was “ok with that,” but savored the idea of al Shibh trying it “in Brooklyn.”

Updates [May 8, 2012]:
Listen to Arun Rath describe the arraignment on PRI’s The World:

Also watch Rath and Josh Meyer, co-author of the book The Hunt For KSM, discuss the trial on PBS NewsHour:

Photo: In this photo of a sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin and reviewed by the U.S. Department of Defense, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, Ammar al Baluchi, Ramzi Binalshibh, Walid bin Attash and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed pray during their arraignment at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Saturday, May 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Janet Hamlin, Pool)

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