Tribunal begins for alleged "mastermind" of 9/11 attacks

The military tribunal of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants accused of organizing the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks began Thursday at this remote US naval base in Cuba, reported dpa.

Mohammed, believed to have once been al-Qaeda's third-ranking operative and "mastermind" of the attacks, appeared for the first time in court and in public since his capture five years ago with the other suspects to hear a reading of war crimes and other charges against them. If convicted, all five could be executed.

Mohammed sat unshackled at the front table with his attorneys and interpreter. He was wearing a white turban and tunic, frequently using his hand to brush his long, thick, black and gray beard. He was talkative in Arabic before the proceedings began. The other four men sat in succession behind him, also wearing white tunics. One defendants was locked in shackles.

Mohammed, 54, and the other defendants were to make statements but it was unclear whether they would enter pleas. The five detainees were held for years in secret CIA prisons after their capture before being transferred to military custody at Guantanamo in September 2006 to stand trial.

The court appearance marks the first time since their arrests the men have been seen publicly. The US military was not allowing photos or television broadcasts of the proceedings, but invited several dozen reporters and a handful of human rights activists to the base to watch.

Mohammed had thick, black-rimmed glasses he slid to his forehead to examine documents and replied "yes" when the judge, Marine Colonel Ralph Kohlman, asked him if he understood English or would prefer a translator.

"Mine is not bad," Mohammed said in English while requesting to occasionally communicate though a translator.

In some cases I will translate it in English to be more accurate," Mohammed told the judge, adding previous statements have been poorly translated. "No need for translator now."

The four other defendants are Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the alleged liaison between the hijackers and al-Qaeda's leadership; Walid bin Attash, believed to have trained some of the hijackers; Ali Abd al- Aziz Ali, Mohammed's nephew and alleged deputy; and Mustafa Ahmed al- Hawsawi, suspected of helping the hijackers enroll in flight schools. All of them seemed capable of speaking some English but retained their right to use translators.

Bin al-Shibh leaned forward at times, smiling and chatting with Mohammed.

Mohammed reportedly admitted in a statement during his captivity that he planned the September 11 attacks from "A to Z" and a host of other terrorist attacks and plots. He also admitted to the murder of American Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 in Pakistan. The Pentagon released a transcript of his statement in March 2007.

The charges against the men include 169 counts of murder in violation of the law of war, conspiracy, attacking civilians and civilian objects, terrorism and hijacking. Other charges are causing serious bodily injury, destruction of property and providing material support for terrorism. Motions are expected to take place in the coming weeks and a September 15 date has been tentatively set for opening arguments.

Kohlman opened the hearings by discussing procedural matters before the prosecutor, Pentagon civilian Bob Swann, took the podium to declare the United States was ready to being the trials.

Mohammed has been a focus of civil rights groups who argue the US government abused or tortured him during his years of secret confinement. The CIA has admitted that Mohammed, often referred to as KSM, was among three detainees subjected to waterboarding, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning.

The trial of Mohammed and the four others is the first big case so far to appear before the controversial military commissions set up by President George W Bush to try suspects in the war on terrorism. Although Bush announced the commissions in 2002, the process has been slow and frequently bogged down by challenges in US federal courts. Not a single trial has been completed.

A Supreme Court ruling forced Bush to revamp the process and get congressional approval, which he subsequently did. The Supreme Court is set to rule on a case later this month, and a decision against the White House could once again derail Bush's longstanding effort to convict and punish those believed responsible for attacks that left 2,973 people dead.

Critics of the latest commissions charge the process remains flawed, mostly because evidence might be admitted that was obtained through mistreatment of detainees and that the rules on the admittance of hearsay evidence are too relaxed. The judge will have final say about what type of evidence is allowed.

The five men are being held at a secret location on Guantanamo, off limits to reporters, separate from the main facility housing detainees.

There is no facility at Guantanamo Bay for carrying out executions, and it remains unclear how the Pentagon would proceed to hand out a death sentence. The US military has not executed anyone since 1961.

The Pentagon had sought to try a sixth person with KSM, but the charges were dropped without a stated reason. Al-Qhatani was believed to be the 20th hijacker in the September 11 attacks but was refused entry into the United States before the plot hatched. He was later captured in Afghanistan.

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