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Alleged 9/11 mastermind ridicules court case

The accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks told a judge Thursday that he wants a death sentence so he can become a martyr.
Guantanamo Sept 11 Trial
In this courtroom sketch reviewed by the U.S. military, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed addresses the court while his co-defendants are seen at left Thursday at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba. Brennan Linsley / AP
/ Source: news services

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the reputed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, told a military judge at his arraignment Thursday that he welcomes the death penalty as a way to martyrdom and ridiculed the proceedings as an "inquisition."

In his first public appearance since his capture five years ago, Mohammed wore dark-framed prison-issue glasses, a turban and a bushy, gray beard, and was noticeably thinner — a stark change from the slovenly man with disheveled hair, unshaven face and T-shirt from the widely distributed photograph after his capture in Pakistan.

He and four other detainees accused of plotting al-Qaida's 2001 attack were at turns cordial and defiant at their arraignment, the first U.S. attempt to try in court those believed to be directly responsible for killing 2,973 people in the bloodiest terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil. All five said they did not want attorneys and would represent themselves.

The arraignment is the highest-profile test yet of the military's tribunal system, which faces an uncertain future. It also threatens to expose harsh interrogation techniques used on the men, who were in CIA custody before being transferred to Guantanamo in 2006.

A sound feed to journalists from the courtroom was turned off twice. The first time, a soldier told reporters it was because a detainee was discussing a medication he had been given, which was a privacy issue.

But his defense attorney, Navy Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier, told The Associated Press later that the prisoner had been discussing his five years as a prisoner of the United States.

The sound was also turned off when another defendant discussed early days of his imprisonment. Judge Ralph Kohlmann said that in both cases sound was turned off because classified information was discussed.

The arraignment, in which no pleas were entered, indicated that hatred for the United States among some of the defendants remains at a boil.

Seeking martyrdom
One defendant said he deeply regrets not joining the hijackers who crashed passenger airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

"I have been seeking martyrdom for five years," said Ramzi Binalshibh, the alleged main intermediary between the 19 hijackers and al-Qaida leaders. "I tried for 9/11 to get a visa but I could not."

Asked if he understands that he could be executed if found guilty, Binalshibh said: "If this martyrdom happens today, I welcome it. God is great. God is great. God is great."

Calmly propping his glasses on his turban to peer at legal papers, Mohammed grinned at times and insisted he would not be represented by any attorneys. The other detainees quickly followed suit and said they too wanted to represent themselves.

One defense attorney said his client, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, was pressured by the other four to snub his defense team. Kohlmann then barred the detainees from talking with each other.

'It's not an inquisition'
The U.S. is seeking the death penalty for all five defendants, who sat at separate tables with their defense teams in a high-tech courtroom on this U.S. Navy base. Binalshibh's ankles were chained to the floor.

Mohammed was careful not to interrupt Judge Ralph Kohlmann. He lost his composure only after the Marine colonel ordered several defense attorneys to keep quiet.

"It's an inquisition. It's not a trial," Mohammed said in broken English, his voice rising. "After torturing they transfer us to inquisition-land in Guantanamo."

The former No. 3 al-Qaida leader explained he believes only in religious "Sharia" law and railed against U.S. President George W. Bush for waging a "crusade war." The judge, wearing a crewcut and black robes, warned Mohammed that he faces execution if convicted of organizing the attacks on America. But Mohammed said he welcomes the death penalty.

"Yes, this is what I wish, to be a martyr for a long time," Mohammed declared. "I will, God willing, have this, by you."

Rejecting legal counsel
Mohammed said he would represent himself at his war crimes trial and two other detainees quickly followed suit: Binalshibh and Waleed bin Attash, who allegedly selected and trained some of the hijackers.

"It hardly comes as any surprise that after holding individuals in solitary confinement for five years and subjecting them to torture, these detainees would reject the legal system and offers to represent them," said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.

Guantanamo Sept 11 Trial
In this photograph of a sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin, reviewed by the U.S. Military, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, right, and Waleed bin Attash, two of the Sept. 11 attacks co-conspirator suspects, attend their arraignment inside the war crimes courthouse at Camp Justice, the legal complex of the U.S. Military Commissions, at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, in Cuba, Thursday, June 5, 2008.Brennan Linsley / AP POOL

The Bush administration has acknowledged that Mohammed was subjected to harsh interrogation techniques including waterboarding — a technique that gives the sensation of drowning — in secret CIA custody before he was transferred to Guantanamo in 2006.

Mohammed is the most valuable al-Qaida official in U.S. custody and the central figure in a trial that will put the Pentagon's military tribunals under an intense spotlight. The tribunals have faced repeated legal setbacks, including a Supreme Court appeal on the rights of Guantanamo detainees that could produce a ruling this month halting the proceedings.

Defense attorneys harshly criticized the military commissions, which were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2006 before being resurrected in an altered form by Congress and President Bush.

"I think the American people, if they ... understood the ramifications in the long term to our Constitution, to their Constitution, I think they would be ashamed," Lachelier said outside the heavily guarded courtroom.

'Sit down'
The defense attorney tried to raise another pending Supreme Court decision in the courtroom, on the benchmark when defendants can be allowed to represent themselves, but Kohlmann told her to keep quiet.

"What part of 'no' do you not understand?" the judge said, peering down from the bench. "Sit down."

Binalshibh's civilian attorney, Thomas Durkin, said the men should be tried in U.S. federal courts.

"We have had many terrorism cases in our federal court system," Durkin said. "I think it is a shame that for whatever reason the Bush administration has put on what we think is a show trial."

The military commissions plan to allow coerced testimony, although evidence obtained by torture is not allowed. Attorneys for Mohammed have said they will challenge evidence obtained through harsh interrogations.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Tom Hartmann, a top tribunal official, told reporters it was up to the judge to determine whether to allow as evidence statements obtained during waterboarding. Hartmann said waterboarding has not officially been classified as torture.

Mohammed said he was tortured after being captured in Pakistan in 2003 but didn't elaborate, indicating he understood he should not discuss it in the courtroom.

"I can't mention about the torturing," said Mohammed, who received an engineering degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. "I know this is the red line."

Kohlmann said he would try to minimize the chance that classified information will come out, in part by delaying closed-circuit video and audio of the proceedings by 20 seconds.

The defendants spoke with each other in Arabic, appeared to pass notes among them and at one point looked back and chuckled at reporters watching from behind a courtroom window.

All appeared to be in robust health except for al-Hawsawi, who allegedly selected and trained some of the 19 hijackers. He looked thin and frail and sat on a pillow on his chair.

The other defendants are Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, known as Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew and lieutenant of Mohammed; Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, a Saudi who allegedly helped finance the hijackers; and Waleed bin Attash, who allegedly selected and trained some of the hijackers.

As the arraignment ended in the early evening, the judge said he would set the next court date later.

About 35 journalists watched on closed-circuit TV in a press room inside a converted hangar, while two dozen others watched through a window from a room adjacent to the courtroom. No photographs were allowed inside the courtroom, but a sketch artist was allowed to draw the scene.

Mohammed saw the sketch made of him when it was given to the defense team and he complained that it made his nose look too big. The artist said she would alter the sketch accordingly.

With less than eight months remaining in Bush's term, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain both say they want to close the military's offshore detention center.

Obama also opposed the Military Commissions Act, which resurrected the military commissions in 2006. McCain supported it.