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Alleged 9/11 plotters skip their Guantanamo hearing

By Carol Rosenberg, The Miami Herald –

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — All five alleged 9/11 plotters skipped Friday’s legal arguments framing their eventual death-penalty tribunal.

While they were gone, lawyers spent the day debating legal motions that covered what trial aspects would borrow from the federal system and which would mirror court-martial practice.

In the military, prosecutors get to veto the witnesses of U.S. forces in criminal trials. Lawyers for the accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four-alleged accomplices want to go straight to the judge, like in federal court. They argued the government shouldn’t know their defense strategy.

In a different argument, defense lawyers want the case dismissed on grounds of unlawful influence, a uniquely military offense, that alleges meddling by the political and military leadership.

One Sept. 11 victim expressed impatience with the process.

“These accused, if they were in another country, particularly a Middle East country, they’d be hung by now,” said Al Acquaviva, a New Jersey dad whose son Paul, 29, was killed at the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001.

Defense lawyers also asked the judge to break with both military and federal practice and order the Pentagon to let TV broadcast the proceedings. Sept. 11 victims get viewing rooms of videocasts in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. But the only place where an unaffiliated spectator can see the hearings is at a 200-seat auditorium in Fort Meade, Md.

“This is a court of justice — it is not reality TV,” said Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor, who added that “human behavior often changes, sometimes to the detriment of justice” when cameras are rolling.

“If these proceedings are fair why is the government afraid to let the world watch?” said Marine Corps Maj. William Hennessey, defense lawyer for alleged al-Qaida deputy Walid bin Attash, 34.

Five key people who weren’t watching on Friday: Mohammed, bin Attash and their three alleged accomplices got permission from the judge Army Col. James Pohl to voluntarily skip portions of this week’s hearings.

Throughout the week, some of the accused showed up. Others did not.

Mohammed, 47, at times watched the proceedings on a 40-second delay video stream between the maximum-security war court and a nearby cell.

Friday is Islam’s holy day, akin to the Sabbath when many Muslims typically take the day off for Friday prayers.

Mohammed and the others had asked the judge to darken the court on Fridays.

Pohl agreed this summer to postpone hearings until after Ramadan, Islam’s holy month of fasting and prayer.

But he has scheduled hearings for seven days a week, without regard to anyone’s Sabbath. The Sept. 11 accused were arraigned on a Saturday.

With all five men absent, bin Attash’s civilian lawyer, Cheryl Bormann, chose to forgo the traditional black cloak she has steadfastly worn to court and caused a stir in May by appearing in court in a traditional abaya and hijab — black scarf and gown.

The five men are accused of organizing, financing and arranging travel for the 19 men who hijacked aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001, then crashed them in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people. They got to Guantanamo in 2006 from up to four years of clandestine CIA detention and interrogation, and eventually got lawyers.

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