updated 8/26/2004 4:45:02 PM ET 2004-08-26T20:45:02

A Yemeni poet accused of crafting al-Qaida propaganda admitted Thursday to a U.S. military commission that he was a member of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, and he argued that he should be allowed to represent himself.

Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul, 36, was defiant as he appeared before the five-member panel to be charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes, which could bring a sentence of life in prison.

“As God is my witness, and the United States did not put any pressure on me, I am an al-Qaida member,” he said through an Arabic interpreter.

Al Bahlul — appearing with head shaved, tan pants and a gray polo shirt — started to speak about his relationship to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States but was cut off by the presiding officer, Army Col. Peter E. Brownback.

Wants to represent himself
Earlier, when al Bahlul was asked whether he had any questions, he replied: “Am I allowed to represent myself?”

After initially saying the order setting up the military trial panels did not allow that, Brownback later decided to refer the request to John D. Altenburg Jr., a retired Army general in charge of the proceedings.

Brownback ordered al Bahlul’s military-appointed defense lawyers to file a motion addressing structural challenges to the commission and to formally request that a higher authority consider whether he could can represent himself or hire a foreign citizen as his attorney.

The hearing then recessed, with no date set for the next session.

Wartime civil liberties

The instructions for the military panel say defendants must be represented by either civilian or military attorneys who are U.S. citizens certified to practice law in the United States.

Brownback warned that even if he were allowed to represent himself, there might be evidence he would not be allowed to see because he did not have clearance for classified information.

“I don’t think it is fair the evidence would not be presented, and the accused cannot defend himself without seeing such evidence,” al Bahlul said.

He added: “I would like to represent myself. If the American system will not allow me to defend myself ... then I will be a listener only.”

The preliminary hearing — the first step in military commissions, or trials — was slowed by inaccurate translations. Several of the words were wrong, according to Arabic-speaking journalists in attendance and a translator for another of the charged prisoners.

During the two-hour hearing, Brownback asked al Bahlul whether he had any legal training in Yemen. The court translator said he answered that he had some knowledge.

But another translator said the translation was wrong and that what al Bahlul said was that he knew people in Yemen who had legal experience.

At a briefing in Washington, Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hemingway, the chief legal adviser to Altenburg on the commissions, said officials would look into the translation issue.

Others before tribunal
Al Bahlul is one of four detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay being arraigned at hearings this week as the first step toward trials by a five-member military commission — the first such proceedings since German saboteurs were tried secretly during World War II.

Bin Laden’s chauffeur, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, 34, of Yemen, declined to enter a plea in the first hearing Tuesday. David Hicks, 29, a Australian cowboy accused of fighting with Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime, pleaded not guilty Wednesday. Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi, a Sudanese born in 1960, is to be charged Friday.

The Defense Department has accused al Bahlul of being a “key al-Qaida propagandist who produced videos glorifying the murder of Americans to recruit, inspire and motivate other al-Qaida members” to attack the United States and other countries.

Al Bahlul’s father, Hamza Ahmed, has told The Associated Press in previous interviews in Yemen that the family has suffered from his son’s detention, both “psychologically and financially.”

“He is cultured and peace-loving, and he speaks English and enjoys reading and writing poetry,” Ahmed said, noting that his son used to send money home.

He said his son, who is married and has four children, told him in a letter that Pakistan handed him over to the Americans and that he had left Pakistan to seek medical treatment for his grandson before the 2001 attacks.

“In his letters he told me how much he missed his wife and children. He has not committed any crimes, and he hates no one,” Ahmed said.

Tribunal members an issue
Al Bahlul’s appointed lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Philip Sundel, had been expected to challenge the impartiality of the commission’s five members, which has emerged as a key issue in the hearings. The members could be disqualified for good cause.

Hicks’ lead civilian attorney, Joshua Dratel, began Wednesday’s hearing with a challenge to Brownback’s impartiality, questioning the former military judge’s relationship with Altenburg, who is overseeing the proceedings.

Brownback served with Altenburg in Fort Bragg, N.C., and his wife worked in Altenburg’s office. He also attended the wedding of Altenburg’s son and spoke at a retirement roast for the general.

“Our concern is for a full and fair process,” Dratel said.

Other panel members who have been challenged include one who knew a firefighter killed in the Sept. 11 attacks and another who arranged the logistics for detainees to be sent from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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