Image: Camp Justice at Guantanamo Bay
Mandel Ngan  /  Pool via AFP - Getty Images
A view of Camp Justice, at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where detainees from Washington's war against terrorism will face charges before an American military commission.
updated 12/8/2008 6:54:34 PM ET 2008-12-08T23:54:34

The alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and four co-defendants told a military judge Monday they want to immediately confess at their war-crimes tribunal, setting up likely guilty pleas and their possible executions.

The five said they decided on Nov. 4, the day President-elect Barack Obama was elected to the White House, to abandon all defenses against the capital charges — in effect daring the Pentagon to grant their wish for martyrdom.

The judge ordered lawyers to advise him by Jan. 4 whether the Pentagon can apply the death penalty — which military prosecutors are seeking — without a jury trial.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and two others said they would postpone entering pleas until the military determines their two co-defendants are mentally competent. "We want everyone to plead together," he said.

Mohammed and another defendant have said they would welcome execution as a path to martyrdom, but the announcement came as a shock to some of the victims' families.

Families attend hearings
"When they admitted their guilt, my reaction was, 'Yes!' My inclination was to jump up and say 'Yay!' But I managed to maintain my decorum," said Maureen Santora, of Long Island City, N.Y., whose firefighter son Christopher died responding to the World Trade Center attacks.

Santora was one of nine victims' relatives watching the proceedings, the first time relatives of the 2,975 people killed in the attacks have been allowed to observe the war-crimes trials. She watched from the back of the courtroom, wearing black and clutching a photo of her son in uniform.

Alice Hoagland, of Redwood Estates, California, was there for her son Mark Bingham, who is believed to be one of the passengers who fought hijackers on United Flight 93 before it crashed in rural Pennsylvania. She said the defendants' announcement was "like a real bombshell to me."

She told reporters during a break that she hoped Obama, "an even-minded and just man," would ensure the five alleged mass murderers are punished. She said she welcomed the opportunity to see the trial because it was a "historic" moment. But she said it did not heal the loss of her son.

"I do not seek closure in my life," she said as she blinked back tears.

'I don't trust you'
In a letter the judge read aloud in court, the five defendants said they "request an immediate hearing session to announce our confessions."

The judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley, asked all five if they were prepared to enter a plea, and all five said yes. But Henley said competency hearings for two of the detainees precluded them from immediately filing pleas.

The letter implies the defendants want to plead guilty, but does not specify whether they will admit to any specific charges. It also says they wish to drop all previous defense motions.

However, that didn't mean they had repented.

"I reaffirm my allegiance to Osama bin Laden," defendant Ramzi Binalshibh blurted out in Arabic at the end of the hearing. "I hope the jihad continues and I hope it hits the heart of America with weapons of mass destruction."

Their letter was so unexpected that Henley was unsure how to proceed. He noted that the law specifies that only defendants unanimously convicted by a jury can be sentenced to death in the tribunals. No jury has been seated.

Mohammed, who has already told interrogators he was the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, also said Monday that he has no faith in the judge, his Pentagon-appointed lawyers or President George W. Bush.

Sporting a chest-length gray beard, Mohammed said in English: "I don't trust you."

He also dismissed one of his standby military attorneys because he had served in Iraq.

Guantanamo expected to close
The first U.S. war-crimes trials since World War II are teetering on the edge of extinction. Obama opposes the military commissions — as the Guantanamo trials are called — and has pledged to close the detention center holding some 250 men soon after taking office next month.

Even if a trial were held, it is all but certain none would begin before Obama takes office on Jan. 20. Still, the U.S. military is pressing forward with the case until it receives orders to the contrary.

"We serve the sitting president and will continue to do so until President-elect Obama takes office," said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.

Human-rights observers said the judge's uncertainty about sentencing is further evidence that the Guantanamo trials should be shut down.

"The fact that the judge doesn't know whether they can be sentenced to death in one of the most important trials in U.S. history shows the circus-like atmosphere of the military commissions," said Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch. "These cases belong in federal court."

One observer who lost his parents in the attacks said he supports holding the trials at Guantanamo Bay.

"The U.S. is doing its best to prove to the world that this is a fair proceeding," said Hamilton Peterson of Bethesda, Md., whose parents Donald and Jean were on United Flight 93.

"It was stunning to see today how not only do the defendants comprehend their extensive rights ... they are explicitly asking the court to hurry up because they are bored with the due process they are receiving."

More on   Khalid Sheikh Mohammed   | Human Rights Watch

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