A military judge struggled to begin Guantanamo's second war crimes trial on Monday after a former aide to Osama bin Laden refused to participate, and his Pentagon-appointed lawyer said he would remain silent in solidarity.
Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, facing a possible life sentence, sat mutely at the defense table. His lawyer announced the prisoner was boycotting the trial because he did not want a military attorney and because the judge had denied his repeated requests to represent himself.
The appointed defense attorney, Air Force Maj. David Frakt, asked to be relieved in deference to his client's wishes, but the judge refused. Frakt then said he could not participate either.
"I will be joining Mr. Al-Bahlul's boycott, sitting silently at the table," said Frakt, who then refused to respond to several questions from the judge.
Required to attend hearings
The judge, Air Force Col. Ronald Gregory, said Frakt was obligated to participate and that both the lawyer and defendant, despite their wishes, would be required to attend the hearings — even if they stay silent.
"The commission will not proceed with an empty defense table," Gregory said.
He was scheduled to begin picking a jury of U.S. military officers later Monday.
Al-Bahlul, who is charged with conspiracy, supporting terrorism and solicitation to commit murder, is the second test of the military commission system. The first trial — for former bin Laden driver Salim Hamdan — ended in August with a conviction and a 5 1/2-year sentence. A third detainee, Australian David Hicks, was convicted in a plea bargain before a trial.
Al-Bahlul said at a previous pretrial hearing that he wanted nothing to do with his trial and would attend only for the announcement of the verdict and sentence. He called the proceedings at this isolated U.S. Navy base a "legal farce."
The 39-year-old from Yemen allegedly created a recruiting video for al-Qaida glorifying its attack on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 American sailors in October 2000. He is also accused of arranging for lead Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta to swear a loyalty oath to bin Laden.
Al-Bahlul, who has been held at Guantanamo since 2002, has acknowledged working for bin Laden but said he does not agree his actions constitute crimes.
The U.S. military says it plans trials for 80 of the roughly 255 men held at Guantanamo on suspicion of terrorism or links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. Eighteen prisoners are currently facing charges.