The Associated Press
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said Thursday that he would welcome the death penalty for his confessed role as mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“Yes, this is what I wish, to be a martyr for a long time,” Mohammed told a military judge who warned that he faces execution if convicted of organizing the attacks on America. “I will, God willing, have this, by you.”
The former No. 3 leader of al-Qaida and four alleged co-conspirators were being arraigned Thursday in their long-awaited first appearance before a war-crimes tribunal. All five face death if convicted of war crimes including murder, conspiracy, attacking civilians and terrorism in the 2001 attacks, which killed 2,973 people.
Mohammed wore thick glasses and a turban and stroked a bushy gray beard, in stark contrast to the disheveled hair, unshaven face and T-shirt he wore when he was captured in Pakistan in 2003.
Appearing calm as he propped his glasses on his turban to peer at legal papers, Mohammed also grinned and exchanged a few words with someone at the defense table occupied by Waleed bin Attash, who allegedly selected and trained some of the 19 hijackers who turned airplanes into missiles in the attacks.
The arraignment of the alleged al-Qaida co-conspirators begins the highest-profile test yet of the military's tribunal system, which faces an uncertain future. The Supreme Court is to rule this month on the rights of Guantanamo prisoners, potentially delaying or halting the proceedings.
It also carries some strategic risk: the military is trying to minimize the chance that Mohammed will be able to spread al-Qaida propaganda in courtoom speeches. The judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, announced a 20-second delay in the closed-circuit video feed to prevent classified information from being disclosed outside the courtroom.
It is the first public appearance for Mohammed since his capture in Pakistan in 2003. He was held in CIA custody at secret sites and then transferred to the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2006, where the exact location of his cell also is top-secret.
Mohammed's defense team has said he may have suffered cognitive impairment from harsh interrogations in CIA custody. The Bush administration acknowledged in February that Mohammed was waterboarded — a technique that involves strapping a person down and pouring water over his or her cloth-covered face to create the sensation of drowning.
The Supreme Court struck down the commissions as unconstitutional in 2006. Congress then altered and resurrected them, but they have remained mired in confusion over courtroom rules, dogged by delays, and challenged repeatedly as unconstitutional.
Military commissions have been conducted since George Washington used them after the end of the Revolutionary War, but this is the first time the United States has used them during an ongoing conflict, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Tom Hartmann, a top tribunal official.
Army Col. Steve David, chief defense counsel for the tribunals, said the military commissions are “fundamentally flawed.” “We will zealously identify and expose each and every (flaw),” Davis said Wednesday.
The defense attorneys accused the U.S. of rushing the trial to influence this year's presidential elections. They recently asked Kohlmann to dismiss the case and remove Hartmann, who was accused of political meddling by a former chief prosecutor for the tribunals.
Hartmann has insisted the trials will be fair, and said he has not been asked to recuse himself from the upcoming trial.
Journalists were allowed to see the closed-circuit TV feed from a nearby press room. Some other observers including Fang A. Wong, a senior American Legion member, also were allowed to see the arraignment, which comes seven years after the attacks.
“I'm from the New York area, and I have been waiting for this for a long time,” Wong said as he waited to be searched by soldiers before entering the tightly guarded court complex.
Guards were near the men but no firearms were to be allowed in the courtroom, said Army Col. Wendy Kelly. Mohammed and the other four detainees can be restrained by retractable leg chains hidden underneath the raised courtroom floor if they become unruly, she said.
With less than eight months remaining in U.S. President George W. Bush's term, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain both say they want to close the military's offshore detention center.
Obama opposed the Military Commissions Act that in 2006 resurrected the military commissions, but McCain supported it. The modular courtroom can be taken down and “sent to Fort Bragg, Fort Lewis, or any installation that needs a big courtroom,” Kelly said.
The military expects the joint arraignment of the five to last just one day. The prisoners will be formally notified of the nature of the charges, will be told of their rights to attorneys and will be given the opportunity to enter a plea, though they do not have to enter one, Hartmann said before the hearing began.
The other defendants are: Ramzi Binalshibh, said to have been the main intermediary between the hijackers and al-Qaida leaders; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, known as Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew and lieutenant of Mohammed; al-Baluchi's assistant, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi.
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