Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-defendants were arraigned May 5 in a military tribunal at Guantanámo Bay on charges of organizing the 9-11 attacks. Mainstream accounts are emphasizing the defendants’ refusal to respect the court, and the outraged response of 9-11 survivors. Few journalists have been allowed to observe, so this report from AP is all over the Web and has run in several newspapers:
They knelt in prayer, ignored the judge and wouldn’t listen to Arabic translations as they confronted nearly 3,000 counts of murder. The self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and four co-defendants defiantly disrupted an arraignment that ended late Saturday in the opening act of the long-stalled effort to prosecute them in a military court…
Walid bin Attash was confined to a restraint chair when he came into court, released only after he promised to behave.
Ramzi Binalshibh began praying alongside his defense table, followed by Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, in the middle of the hearing; Binalshibh then launched into a tirade in which he compared a prison official to the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and declared that he was in danger.
“Maybe they will kill me and say I committed suicide,” he said in a mix of Arabic and broken English…
The defendants’ behavior outraged 9/11 family members watching on closed-circuit video feeds around the United States at East Coast military bases. One viewer shouted, “C’mon, are you kidding me?” at the Fort Hamilton base in Brooklyn.
“They’re engaging in jihad in a courtroom,” said Debra Burlingame, whose brother, Charles, was the pilot of the plane that flew into the Pentagon. She watched the proceeding from Brooklyn.
A handful of people who lost family members in the attacks and were selected by a lottery to attend the proceedings watched in the courtroom.
For a more informed perspective on these courtroom antics, you have to turn to Anthony D. Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union, who appears to be the token representative from a rights group that was allowed to attend. On the ACLU’s Blog of Rights, he writes:
The military commissions remain under the Obama administration—as they were under the Bush administration—a cynical way to obscure the fact that the defendants were tortured, and that torture was sanctioned at the highest level of the U.S. government.
To that end, the government has sought with a missionary zeal to prevent any public testimony or evidence about how the accused have been treated while in U.S. custody. I experienced that less than an hour into Saturday’s hearing, when the word “torture” came up. Censors immediately cut off the audio feed, which was on a 40-second delay to courtroom observers behind a soundproof glass.
At issue was the defendants’ refusal to wear headphones for an Arabic translation of court proceedings. David Nevin, counsel for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, explained that Mohammed didn’t want to use headphones because of “past experiences.” Presumably, this referred to when the defendants were forced to wear headphones and subjected repeatedly to loud music blasted into their ears while in custody.
Last week, the ACLU filed a motion challenging the government’s censorship. Although the judge did not rule on the motion Saturday, we hope he will give us a hearing when the case is set to resume June 12.
On Saturday, it was obvious that the government has continued to provide inadequate resources to the defense. One defendant has not been afforded access to a translator for more than a year. His request to have a civilian lawyer with extensive experience in death penalty cases has also been denied.
The defense is also handicapped by the rules that allow some coerced evidence and hearsay evidence, second and third-hand information normally banned in federal courts. The rules also permit the prosecution to provide the defense only summaries of classified information, but do not permit the defense to ask the judge to reconsider the issue, even if the defense discovers new facts.
The basic protections of attorney-client privilege are also not possible at Guantánamo, where the commander has banned communications between defendants and lawyers about what he has bizarrely labeled “information contraband.” That includes discussions about any U.S. personnel who may have tortured the defendants.
Why isn’t this making it into mainstream reportage? Now, we have had no patience for the extremoid idiots who would glorify the 9-11 plotters as anti-imperialist heros or whatever. But it is no disrespect of the 9-11 survivors to call out what is underway at Gitmo as a blatant perversion of justice. On the contrary, in fact: there can be no true justice for 9-11 victims and their kin if there isn’t justice—and this means a trial that conforms to international standards, rather than an improvised mockery, under military auspices and closed to the eyes of the world. If KSM and his cohorts are convicted and sentenced to death by this kangaroo court, it will be the greatest vindication possible for the jihadists, who will be able to (plausibly) claim them as martyrs and victims of “victor’s justice.” And also a vindication for the conspiracy freaks, enabling them to (plausibly) assert that the government is acting like it has something to hide.
The world isn’t paying much attention, but it seems like we are about to witness a dangerous defeat for accountability and historical memory in the 9-11 case.
See our last post on the torture and detention scandals.