GUANTANAMO BAY, Jan 20 – Five suspects accused of plotting the September 11 attacks were defiant at pre-trial hearings as the US war on terror camp and its special military tribunals faced an uncertain future.
With incoming US president Barack Obama — who has vowed to scrap the Guantanamo trials — set to take office Tuesday, self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed regularly interrupted the judge and lawyers, declaring that he had been tortured and did not recognize the court.
"This is terrorism, not court. You don’t give me the opportunity to talk," said Sheikh Mohammed, who appeared Monday alongside his alleged co-conspirators Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, Walid bin Attash, Mustapha al-Hawsawi and Ramzi Binalshibh at the hearings Monday amid tight security.
"We are doing jihad for the cause of God," Sheikh Mohammed said, unapologetic for the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people after hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
"We’re proud of September 11," Binalshibh added.
Colonel Stephen Henley, the judge presiding over the case, acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding the future of the proceedings, referring a legal question to "later sessions, if later sessions are scheduled."
But relatives of 9/11 victims watching the hearings called for Guantanamo to remain open and for the military commissions to try the alleged co-conspirators.
"We demand that this camp stay open and that the process continue," said Joe Holland, whose son died in the attacks.
Rejecting counsel they say represents the country that imprisoned and, they say, tortured them, the accused men appeared wearing white robes and sporting long beards.
In December, Mohammed and his four co-defendants said they would submit guilty pleas to terror charges pending mental competency evaluations. Should the guilty pleas go forward, the men could be sentenced to death. Mohammed has openly acknowledged he was seeking martyrdom.
Final evidentiary motions also began for Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen arrested in Afghanistan when he was 15 years old for allegedly killing a US soldier with a hand grenade.
Khadr’s defense focused on the interrogations their client underwent in Afghanistan and later while at the "war on terror" camp in Guantanamo.
His main trial was set to begin on January 26, although experts predict it will never take place.
"This is going to end now within two days," said Khadr’s lawyer, William Kuebler.
Obama, who takes office on Tuesday, will likely make good on his campaign promise and shutter the prison, as well as President George W. Bush’s military commissions by issuing an executive order.
In his confirmation hearing, attorney general designate Eric Holder said that the Obama team was already taking steps to prepare to close the prison and that the military commissions did not provide enough legal protections to the defendants, saying they could be tried in regular US courts.
It could take several months to fully close down the detention camp, as US officials will have to transfer some of the approximately 245 prisoners there to other countries and then decide whether to try the remaining suspects in US courts.
Mandated by Congress in 2006, the military commissions were established by the Bush administration to try terror suspects under separate rules from regular civilian or military courts.
American Civil Liberties Union director Anthony Romero said a plan to deal with the Guantanamo prisoners, "while requiring political courage, is not complicated."
"Each detainee’s case should be thoroughly reviewed. Where there is no evidence of criminal conduct, detainees should be repatriated to countries that don’t torture. Where there is, they should be tried in our traditional court system," Romero said in commentary published by the McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
Established in early 2002 following the US-led offensive in Afghanistan, the detention centre was designed to hold suspected terrorists who the Bush administration claimed were "enemy combatants" of a non-state organization and not covered by the Geneva Conventions for treatment of prisoners of war.
Over the years, some 800 detainees have gone through Guantanamo, including 520 transferred to other countries to be held or released. Sixty have been cleared for release or transfer, but their home countries have been reluctant to take them.
Of the approximately 245 inmates still held at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, only about 20 have been charged, including the five suspected 9/11 conspirators.