Alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, four others in court for pretrial hearings

The alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks appeared in court Monday at the Guantanamo Bay prison for a week of pretrial motions that are expected to touch on claims of torture at secret CIA sites and the public’s right to unfettered access to the proceedings.

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, 47, and his four co-defendants were quiet during the opening day of motions, a break from their disruptive and defiant behavior during their arraignment in the spring. They responded politely to procedural questions from the judge, Army Col. James. L. Pohl.

“I don’t think there is any justice in this court,” Mohammed told the judge after acknowledging that he understood he had the right not to attend future hearings if he so chose.

The case, which is not expected to go to trial before next fall, is pitting the government’s desire to bring the architects of the terrorist attacks to justice against its reluctance to shed light on the most aggressive and controversial tactics of the George W. Bush administration.

The most consequential issue that the judge is expected to tackle this week is a legal challenge filed by the American Civil Liberties Union contesting the prosecution’s position that any testimony about the CIA’s rendition program be withheld from the public.

“The eyes of the world are on this Military Commission and the public has a substantial interest in and concern about the fairness and transparency of these proceedings,” the ACLU said in its motion. “This commission should reject — and not become complicit with — the government’s improper proposals to suppress the defendant’s personal accounts of government misconduct.”

Several media organizations, including The Washington Post, have filed motions backing the ACLU’s position. Prosecutors have argued that unrestricted testimony about the CIA’s rendition program could expose intelligence methods, sources and activities. Reporters and other spectators watch a delayed video feed of the hearings at Guantanamo Bay and Fort Meade, which gives government censors the ability to withhold portions deemed to contain classified material.

Families of Sept. 11 victims also were invited to watch the proceeding via closed-circuit video at military installations in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts.

Mohammed’s lead civilian attorney, David Nevin, said the week ahead would expose the shortcomings of the military tribunal.

“It is a court that is designed to achieve a conviction and to do so in such a way that the truth never comes out,” he said at a news conference after the hearing adjourned. “It’s not fair.”

Pohl made no substantive rulings Monday. He ruled that the inmates may choose not to attend future hearings and had each one agree that the proceedings could continue without them even if they managed to escape before the case concludes.

The five men on trial are among 15 high-value detainees held at Guantanamo. The case, the first trial for suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks, has had a bumpy trajectory. President Obama suspended judicial proceedings at Guantanamo Bay shortly after coming into office in 2008, vowing to prosecute the suspects in a federal courtroom in New York City.

That plan was scrapped under intense congressional and public criticism. In spring 2011, the Justice Department announced that the military would once again be in charge of prosecuting Mohammed and his co-defendants.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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