9/11 "mastermind," others back before Guantanamo judge

Last Updated 12:34 p.m. ET

(CBS/AP) GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba - The self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and four accused co-conspirators appeared in public for the first time in more than three years Saturday, when U.S. officials started a second attempt at what is likely to be a drawn out legal battle that could lead to the men's executions.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-defendants were being arraigned at a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay on charges that include that include 2,976 counts of murder for the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

The hearing quickly bogged down before they could be arraigned. One prisoner, Walid bin Attash was put in a restraint chair for unspecified reasons, and lawyers for all defendants complained that the prisoners were prevented from wearing the civilian clothes of their choice.

Mohammed refused to respond to questions, removing his earphone and sitting in silence. His civilian lawyer, David Nevin, said he believed Mohammed was not responding because he believes the tribunal is unfair.

The judge, Army Col. James Pohl, warned that he would not permit defendants to block the hearing and would continue without his participation.

"One cannot choose not to participate and frustrate the normal course of business," Pohl said. "If he refuses to put the earphones in, then he is choosing to become uniformed."

The judge then entered a "not guilty" plea for Mohammed.

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When asked if they wanted to keep their counsel, all the defendants refused to answer question or to even look at the judge. Several read the Koran and fingered prayer beads; some just stared of into the middle distance.

Attash's attorney, Cheryl Borman, is wearing an Arabic-styled outfit that covers everything but her face. She accused a woman on the government's side of wearing an inappropriate outfit. "We ask there be discretion in wearing clothing appropriate for a courtroom session," she said, claiming that her client might be forced into "committing a sin" if he were to look at an inappropriately-attired female.

(For the record, the female attorneys are wearing Navy Service Dress Blue uniforms, which feature a skirt just below the knee and long sleeves.)

The chief prosecutor, Army Brig Gen. Mark Martins, responded that everyone on his side of the room was qualified to be there and was acting appropriately. This prompted David Nevin, the attorney for Mohammed, to demand all those attending on the government's side identify themselves.

"Considering what Mr Mohammed has been through, the presence of unknown, shadowy people [is] unnerving," he said.

Judge Pohl noted the complaint, but elected to continue.

Members of the media pool move to a courtroom to witness the arraignment of self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four co-defendants, Saturday, May 5, 2012, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
AP Photo/The Miami Herald, Walter Michot

Defendant Ramzi Binalshibh then began to loudly complain about the treatment of all the defendants. His microphone was not on for most of his outburst, but reporters heard him tell the judge he was being treated so poorly that he might die.

"Maybe they are going to kill us and say that we are committing suicide," he said. The judge then told him he had the right to make a complaint about conditions at the camp, but this was not the time.

Several pool reporters also said they heard Binalshibh shout that Muammar Qadaffi was in Guantanamo as well.

In the past, during the failed first effort to prosecute them at the U.S. base in Cuba, Mohammed has mocked the tribunal and said he and his co-defendants would plead guilty and welcome execution. But there were signs that at least some of the defense teams were preparing for a lengthy fight, planning challenges of the military tribunals and the secrecy that shrouds the case.

The arraignment is "only the beginning of a trial that will take years to complete, followed by years of appellate review," attorney James Connell, who represents defendant Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, told reporters gathered at the base to observe the hearing.

"I can't imagine any scenario where this thing gets wrapped up in six months," Connell said.

Defendants in what is known as a military commission typically do not enter a plea during their arraignment. Instead, the judge reads the charges, makes sure the accused understand their rights and then moves on to procedural issues. Lawyers for the men said they were prohibited by secrecy rules from disclosing the intentions of their clients.

Jim Harrington, a civilian attorney for Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni prisoner who has said at one hearing that he was proud of the Sept. 11 attacks, said he did not think that any of the defendants would plead guilty, notwithstanding their earlier statements.

Army Capt. Jason Wright, one of Mohammed's Pentagon-appointed lawyers, declined to comment on the case.

As in previous hearings, a handful of people who lost family members in the attacks were selected by lottery to travel to the base to watch the proceedings. Other family members were gathering at military bases in New York and across the East Coast to watch the proceedings live on closed-circuit video.

Family members at Guantanamo said they were grateful for the chance to see a case they believe has been delayed too long.

Cliff Russell, whose firefighter brother Stephen died responding to the World Trade Center, said he hoped the case would end with the death penalty for the five Guantanamo Prisoners.

"I'm not looking forward to ending someone else's life and taking satisfaction in it, but it's the most disgusting, hateful, awful thing I ever could think of if you think about what was perpetrated," Russell said.

Suzanne Sisolak of Brooklyn, whose husband Joseph was killed in his office in the trade center's north tower, said she is not concerned about the ultimate outcome as long as the case moves forward and the five prisoners do not go free.

"They can put them in prison for life. They can execute them," Sisolak said. "What I do care about is that this does not happen again. They need to be stopped. That's what I care about because nobody deserves to have this happen to them."

The arraignment for the five comes more than three years after President Barack Obama's failed effort to try the suspects in a federal civilian court and close the prison at the U.S. base in Cuba.