U.S. efforts to try five Guantanamo prisoners accused of plotting the September 11 attacks resumed Monday after months of delays as a polite courtroom discussion of legal representation contrasted sharply with the last chaotic session in May.
The orderly session kicked off a week of pretrial hearings that will focus later on secrecy issues in the death penalty case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the hijacked plane attacks that killed 2,976 people in the United States in 2001, and four alleged al Qaeda conspirators accused of providing money and other support for the hijackers.
It was a stark contrast to the last time the five were in the war crimes courtroom at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. During their chaotic 13-hour arraignment hearing in May, the defendants made defiant outbursts and refused to answer the judge's questions or listen through earphones to an Arabic translation of the proceedings.
On Monday, they listened attentively and answered calmly as the judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, questioned them about a potential conflict of interest. Navy Commander Suzanne Lachelier, a defense lawyer who had previously represented defendant Ramzi Binalshibh, had been reassigned for undisclosed reasons to the team representing Mustafa al Hawsawi, a Saudi accused of delivering money to the September 11 hijackers.
Before he approved the move, the judge wanted to ensure the defendants waived any right to challenge it later if their interests diverged, something that could happen if one implicates the other.
"I have no objection for Miss Lachelier to assist my brother Mustafa, if he wants her," Binalshibh, a Yemeni accused of helping the hijackers find flight schools, politely told the judge.
The defendants appeared to have been granted their request to choose their own courtroom attire. Mohammed, whose long beard was heavily hennaed, wore a dark vest over his white tunic and a loosely wrapped white turban. Some of the others wore brightly checked kaffiyehs - headdresses commonly worn by Arab men. Their lawyers had complained after the May hearing that the prison camp commander had refused to let them wear vests and scarves.
In addition to Mohammed, Hawsawi and Binalshibh, defendants Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Walid bin Attash are charged with conspiring with al Qaeda, attacking civilians and civilian targets, murder in violation of the laws of war, destruction of property, hijacking and terrorism. All five could face the death penalty if convicted.
An earlier attempt to try them at Guantanamo ended when the Obama administration tried to move the trials to New York City. That was abandoned under pressure from Congress and from New Yorkers, and the charges were re-filed in Guantanamo.
Scheduled hearings have been repeatedly postponed since the May arraignment. A hearing tentatively set for June was delayed because one of Mohammed's defense lawyers, a civilian death penalty expert, had to attend the execution of a client in an unrelated case.
A July session was postponed to allow the defendants to observe the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during daylight hours. Hearings set for August were delayed when an Internet outage left the lawyers unable to access their electronic legal documents, and then canceled altogether as Tropical Storm Isaac approached. It doused the base but caused no damage.
In late September, the work space used by the defense lawyers was shut down because it was infested with mold, rat droppings and decaying rat carcasses. Defense lawyers said the 1940s-era building was making them sick and asked for a delay.
The judge ordered a cleanup but ruled there would be no further postponement. He also rejected a request from Aziz Ali to be excused from the hearings in order to mourn his father, who died last week.
Many of the issues the court will address during this week's hearing pertain to secrecy issues. Defense lawyers want the judge to abolish a "presumptive classification" process that treats as a top national secret any discussion of what happened to the defendants during interrogations in secret CIA prisons before being sent to Guantanamo in 2006.
The judge will also hear news organizations' request to limit closing of the courtroom for secret sessions and be asked to decide whether the U.S. Constitution governs the tribunals being held at the U.S. base in southeast Cuba.