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Inside the 9/11 arraignments

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9/11 arraignmentsby Camille Elhassani 

Thirteen hours after it began, the arraignment of the five defendants on trial for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States ended, after the men held off on entering a plea and the charges were read against them.

The defendants are accused of terrorism, conspiracy, murder in violation of the laws of war, and other charges in connection with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Family members of the victims, media and NGO workers were allowed in to witness the arraignment, or formal reading of the charges.

We were separated from the court by a glass partition, with audio from proceedings being transmitted at a 40-second delay, so that any classified material could be censored if need be.

David Nevin has been Khaled Sheikh Mohammed’s lawyer since the first attempt to try the defendants more than three years ago, and says that his client has serious concerns about the process.

Mohammed, a Kuwait-born Pakistani national who was captured in 2003 and transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2006, is the self-described mastermind of the attacks.

The other defendants are: Waleed bin Attash; Ramzi Binalshibh; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali (also known as Ammar al-Baluchi); and Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi.

The earlier trial was suspended by Barack Obama, the US president, in 2009, so that the process could be overhauled.

During the earlier proceedings, the defendants attempted to disrupt proceedings. This time, they mostly just refused to participate at all.

During the hearing, Nevin said he believes that his client will decline to speak, because of his deep concerns regarding the fairness and legality of the process.  

Despite not participating, two of the defendants did interrupt proceedings.

Binalshibh shouted out against the guards at Guantanamo: "Maybe they are going to kill us and say that we have committed suicide." All of what he said wasn’t heard by the media behind the glass partition.

Later in the day, Bin Attash took his shirt off to show scars that his lawyer says came from beatings inflicted by his captors.

For most of the hearing, the defendants sat silently reading the Quran, or talking to their lawyers and each other.

At one point, Hawsawi was thumbing through a copy of the Economist. He passed it up to Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali.

Several times during the day, Mohammed, who was in the front row, said something to his nephew, Bin Attash, who was sitting behind him.

Bin Attash then turned and said something to the detainee behind him, Binalshibh, who turned and spoke to Aziz Ali and so on.

The only female lead defence lawyer is Cheryl Bormann. While she isn't a Muslim, she wore a black abaya to court.

Bormann says she always covers her hair when she meets her client, out of respect for his faith. She wouldn't, however, say if her client asked her to sit in the back of the room instead of at his defence table during the proceedings.

All the lawyers are prevented from speaking about conversations they’ve had with their clients. The US government considers it classified information. All Bormann would say is: "I have no problem sitting in the back."

In the months leading up to the arraignment, the five defence lawyers made it clear that they felt the military commissions do not represent a fair process, lack transparency, and are not properly resourced.

During a break in the proceedings, Captain Jason Wright, defence lawyer for Mohammed, said he still has those concerns.

"This is a second class form of justice," he said.

Mohammed led the defendants in a prayer in the courtroom before the evening session began. 

As the prosecutor read the charges, some of the family members wept.

At the end of the 13-hour court day, Brigadier-General Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor in the case, walked to the back of the courtroom where the families were standing waiting to leave. 

He had his hand over his heart. Many nodded back to him.

Army Colonel James Pohl, the judge hearing the case, has now set June 12 as the next date of hearing. According to him, it will be at least another year before the trial begins.

In the meantime, the defendants' lawyers say they will continue to fight for a more transparent process of justice.


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