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9/11 Suspects Arraigned at Guantanamo Amid Controversy

The alleged mastermind of the September 11th attacks and four alleged co-conspirators were arraigned on terrorism and murder charges Thursday at a military hearing at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The men could face the death penalty. But the controversy that has surrounded the specially created military commissions system continues. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Guantanamo.

Wearing traditional white outfits, the men charged with planning, financing and facilitating the September 11th attacks, made their first public appearances since their arrests, as long as five years ago. Under an agreement between the judge and their military lawyers, their opportunity to plead innocent or guilty was postponed until a future court session.

The six-hour hearing, plus breaks for meals and Mulsim prayers, was marked by chantings from the Koran by the most notorious defendant, the confessed mastermind of the September 11th attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Speaking in English, he called the process an "Inquisition," said he was tortured during his five-year detention and he hopes to be executed. Mohammed appeared with black-rimmed glasses and a long, bushy gray beard.

The military judge, U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Ralph Kohlmann, allowed three of the defendants to, in essence, fire their court-appointed military attorneys, but the attorneys will stay on as advisers, and the men can change their minds later. One of the defense attorneys, Commander Suzanne Lachelier, was clearly angry during the hearing and later accused the judge of applying the protections of the U.S. constitution selectively

"I think what happened is shameful," she said. "While I'm extremely proud to wear the uniform, very proud to be a member of the United States Navy, very proud to be doing this job on behalf of the United States Navy, I do think that what happened today tarnished this uniform."

The chief prosecutor, Colonel Lawrence Morris, said the hearing was part of what he called the continued steady progress of the military commissions system.

"Most of you had the opportunity to observe the arraignments of the 9/11 co-conspirators, which represents another step toward bringing to justice five individuals whom we will show to be responsible for the September 11th attacks that murdered nearly 3,000 innocent persons," he said.

During the hearing, the defendants sparred with the judge over their access to attorneys and whether the U.S. military has the right to try them. In the end, they all asked to represent themselves.

Their lawyers said they had not had enough time to explain the process to the men, and one attorney said his client, Mustafa al Hawsawi had been intimidated into rejecting his attorneys by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The Army lawyer, Major Jon Jackson, said Mohammad had a side conversation with his client and asked him "What are you, in the American Army now?" Hawsawi was allegedly a top aide to Mohammed in the al-Qaida terrorist organization.

Also during Thursday's hearing, alleged al-Qaida member Ali Abdul Aziz Ali rejected the judge's offer of military lawyers free of charge, saying he had been tortured free of charge for five years. He said he would have appreciated having a lawyer on the day he was arrested, but that it is shameful for the United States to put him on trial now, particularly because he has been allowed very little contact with the lawyers assigned to represent him. He called the proceedings a "stage play."

Detainee Ramzi Bin Al-Shibh, who said he would have been among the September 11th hijackers if he could have gotten a U.S. visa, chided the judge on the pronunciation of his name, and said he is being forced militarily to take some medication, which one of his lawyers described as psychotropic. He was the only detainee shackled to the floor during the hearing, which his lawyer later said was part of the 'protocol' required by the medicine.

The other defendant is Walid Muhammed 'Attash, who is accused in the September 11th attacks and the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.

The judge said the detainees were required to attend this arraignment, but will be allowed to stay away from later stages of their trial if they want.

Reporters and human rights activists were allowed to watch and hear the session, with an audio delay so a security official could block the publication of any secret material. The audio and video feeds were stopped twice. No recording or picture-taking was allowed, but sketches by an artist were distributed.

Among the observers was Jill Heine, legal adviser to Amnesty International.

"I was very concerned, Amnesty is very concerned that justice and the rule of law will not be respected in these proceedings and that that was very much in evidence today," she said.

On Wednesday, the head of the military commissions process vowed the trials would be fair and open. But Thursday, defense attorneys, some military and some civilian, and human rights activists all blasted the hearing as unfair. Judge Kohlmann allowed the defendants to speak fairly freely, but cut off their attorneys several times when he felt they were speaking out of turn, telling them sharply to "sit down!"

This military commissions process, created specially for suspects in the war on terror, is highly controversial. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the original plan, and is now considering a case that could invalidate the current, revised process.