Trial of alleged 9/11 mastermind restarts, days before anniversary

GUANTANAMO BAY (Cuba) • The prosecution of alleged Sept 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others has restarted, just days before the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks, stirring new hopes for justice and retribution.

Mohammed and his co-defendants, who have been locked up at the "War on Terror" prison at the US naval base in Cuba's Guantanamo Bay for nearly 15 years, will appear in the military tribunal for the first time since early 2019.

But after a 17-month halt due to the coronavirus pandemic, the proceedings appear likely to continue where they left off, mired in the defence lawyers' efforts to disqualify most of the government's evidence as tainted by the torture the defendants underwent in custody.

On Sunday, the new military judge, Air Force Colonel Matthew McCall - the eighth in the case - signalled a slow start, deciding that an initial hearing focused on his own qualifications would take place yesterday. Lawyers for both sides are allowed in a war crimes tribunal to question a new judge for possible bias. The rest of the week will mostly involve meetings with the military prosecutors and defence teams.

With scores of motions lined up to demand evidence that military prosecutors refuse to hand over, defence attorneys said the pretrial phase could easily last another year, placing far over the horizon any hope for a jury trial and verdict.

Attorneys say the five defendants - Mohammed, Ammar al-Baluchi, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Mustafa al-Hawsawi - are all weak and suffer the lasting effects of severe torture endured in secretive Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) "black" sites between 2002 and 2006.

Added to that, the attorneys say, is the cumulative impact of 15 years in harsh, isolated conditions since arriving in Cuba.

The accused will appear in an ultra-secure military commissions courtroom surrounded by fences of razor wire, each with his own defence team.

In the audience will be family members of some of the 2,976 people they are accused of murdering two decades ago, as well as a large contingent of reporters to mark the confluence with the sombre anniversary of the attacks on Saturday.

The five face the death penalty on charges of murder and terrorism in the war crimes tribunal.

They are represented by attorneys assigned by the military, as well as pro-bono lawyers from the private sector and non-governmental organisations.

Since the case started, prosecutors have regarded it as open-and-shut, even without the tainted information reaped from the brutal CIA interrogations.

Instead, prosecutors maintain that the defendants all gave solid evidence of conspiring in the attacks during so-called "clean-team" interrogations conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2007, after the five arrived at Guantanamo.

But the defence attorneys argue that the 2007 sessions were hardly "clean" because the FBI took part in the CIA's torture programme, and their interrogations carried a similar menace.

The defendants, still feeling the impact of torture at that time, spoke to the FBI under the real fear that it would start again, the defence contends.

"The cover-up of torture is also the reason that we are all gathered at Guantanamo for the 42nd hearing in the 9/11 military commission," defence attorney James Connell said.

To prove their case, the defence is demanding huge amounts of classified materials that the government is resisting turning over, on everything from the original torture programme to conditions at Guantanamo to health assessments.

Defence lawyers also want to interview dozens more witnesses, after 12 already appeared before the court, including two men who oversaw the CIA programme.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2021, with the headline 'Trial of alleged 9/11 mastermind restarts, days before anniversary'. Subscribe