Pretrial 9/11 hearings restart in Guantánamo

US administration appoints new lawyer to help oversee closure of military prison in Cuba

SIMON CARSWELL

at Guantánamo Bay

naval base, Cuba

Pretrial hearings in the prosecution cases against five men accused of plotting the September 2001 attacks on the United States have restarted, after a four-month hiatus as the Obama administration appointed a Washington lawyer to help manage the closure of the controversial prison at Guantánamo.

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The men, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self- proclaimed mastermind of the attacks on New York and Washington, attended court yesterday at the start of a week of hearings to decide whether the military is interfering in communications between the five men and their lawyers and impeding their work in preparing a defence for the men.


First hearings
The first hearings to take place since February began as the administration appointed Cliff Sloan, a confidant of secretary of state John Kerry, as the new diplomatic envoy responsible for the shutting down of the Guantánamo military prison.

It holds 166 prisoners, including 86 inmates who have been cleared for transfer to other countries.

Mr Sloan, a former publisher of Slate magazine and a one- time lawyer in the Clinton administration, is married to Mary Lou Hartman, an Irish- American and a strong supporter of the US-Ireland Alliance, which manages the George J Mitchell Scholarship programme that sends US students to Ireland.

President Barack Obama announced plans last month to restart efforts to close the Guantánamo prison after his bid to shut the camp faltered following opposition from congress over the transfer of prisoners overseas.

The five men accused in yesterday’s hearing in Guantánamo were charged last year with murdering 2,976 people in the attacks on New York and Washington.

They are being tried in a US military court on the Cuban naval base. They are accused of organising, financing and assisting the 19 hijackers who took over and crashed four aircraft on September 11th, 2001.


Orange beard
Kuwait-born Mohammed, who is in his late 40s, sat in the first of six seats reserved for defendants in the $12 million military commission court at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay.

He sported a long dyed-orange beard and wore a white ghutra headdress and a green camouflage military jacket.

Two other defendants wore camouflage clothing. Walid Bin Attash, born in 1979, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh (41), who are both from Yemen, sat in consecutive seats behind Mohammed.

Ammar al Baluchi, Mohammed’s nephew who is in his mid- 30s and a Pakistani citizen, and Mustafa al-Hawsawi (44), a Saudi, sat behind the other three defendants among more than 60 people who were in attendance in court.

The defendants each spoke only once yesterday to respond to the judge, US army colonel James Pohl, to confirm that they understood their right to attend the court or to waive that right and that they could also be compelled to attend.

Yesterday’s hearing was dominated by the defence lawyers’ questioning of retired admiral Bruce MacDonald, who until March ran the military commissions system under which the men are being tried.

Adm MacDonald was asked to answer questions about influence, inadequate resourcing, and the seizure and monitoring of communications between the lawyers and the five defendants.


Hunger strike
Chief prosecutor Brig Gen Mark Martins told reporters before yesterday's hearing that the trial of the five men would start in late 2014.

On the other side of the Guantánamo base, 104 of the 166 prisoners at the military-run camp are on hunger strike, of whom 44 are being forced-fed.

Two of those are being treated in a prison hospital with non-life threatening conditions, said US army spokesman Lieut Col Todd Breasseale.

The mass hunger strike at the prison camp, which is off limits to reporters attending the military court hearings this week, started in February over the indefinite detention of inmates and interference with their personal belongings, including Korans, during searches by prison guards.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent