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Accused Yemeni Terrorist Asks to Defend Himself at Terror Trial - 2004-08-26

A Yemeni man facing trial on war crimes charges has appeared in a U.S. military court confessing to be a member of al-Qaida and demanding to represent himself before what will be the first military commissions since WWII. The dramatic move came during pre-trial hearings for accused enemy combatants at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Through a translator, Ali al-Bahlul, 36, admitted in court he is a member of al-Qaida and was about to make reference to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. But at that very moment, the presiding officer stopped him from speaking, instructing the courtroom that this apparent confession cannot be considered evidence because the defendant was not under oath.

U.S. military prosecutors allege Mr. al-Bahlul was Osama bin-Laden's propagandist, producing videos designed to recruit new al-Qaida members to attack the United States. His father calls him a peace-loving writer of poetry.

In what were at times dramatic exchanges with the military panel, Mr. al-Bahlul said he does not accept his military appointed defense attorneys and demanded to be allowed to represent himself or have a Yemeni lawyer appointed for him. The commission's presiding officer adjourned the hearing until the issue could be considered by higher military authorities.

The Yemeni defendant is the third person this week to go before a panel of military officers on terror conspiracy charges. The preliminary hearings at this American base on the island of Cuba mark the start of what will be the first U.S. military trials for war crimes in 60 years.

But at several points during Thursday's hearings, questions arose involving inaccurate translations, something human rights groups believe could undermine the entire military commission process.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said "what's clear in the case of Mr. al-Bahlul, apparently, is the fact that the system cannot work even in the context where you have a man who is willing to confess to a possible involvement in the attacks of 9/11," he noted. "That should raise serious doubts about whether or not the entire system can work on behalf of the other men who will come before it in the coming months."

The Pentagon says everyone charged with war crimes is presumed innocent and must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Commission spokesman Colonel David McWilliams says the issue of translation problems is now being looked into.

"As these issues come up, as some of them did today, they're certainly going to be addressed and we're going to look at are we providing all of the resources necessary to ensure that the trial is full and fair," said Colonel McWilliams.

Even so, defense lawyers have filed motions challenging the impartiality of commission members and their qualifications to hear evidence. Only one officer on the commission is an experienced lawyer.