The Ten Strangest Things about the 9/11 Arraignment
by Amy Davidson
“Why is this so hard?” Colonel James Pohl, the judge presiding over the military prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other 9/11 defendants, said at their arraignment yesterday. At that point, it was already well into the hearing, which would careen on for more than thirteen hours, including breaks for lunch and prayer and shouting. The actual arraignment began about nine hours in; the defendants deferred entering a plea, and the next hearing was set for June 12th. The prosecutors read the eighty-seven-page charge sheet in shifts.
Sixty relatives of people who died on 9/11 watched from behind a plexiglas partition, as did, separately, a contingent of reporters; there were also a few pool reporters in the courtroom, and a closed-circuit feed to a number of military bases, where other family members watched. What they saw shouldn’t inspire much faith in the ability of the military tribunal system to handle a trial of this complexity.
It also included some moments that were genuinely strange, if not outright surreal. Here’s a countdown to the strangest, from the dispatches and tweets of reporters who were there.
10. The Leg: Walid bin Attash, who is accused of training the hijackers, was brought into court in a restraint chair by three guards. As Michele Shephard, of the Toronto Star, describes it, “A fourth guard brought in his prosthetic leg separately about a minute later.”
9. The Beard: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was last seen with a salt-and-pepper beard. Saturday, he had a red beard. During a break, a Navy spokesman, Captain Robert Durand, told Carol Rosenberg, of the Miami Herald, that the prison “does not provide detainees with hair dye.”
8. “Bite-sized chunks”: The defendants wouldn’t put their earphones in for the simultaneous translation. The court brought in interpreters who would just repeat the proceedings in Arabic for everyone to hear. This got noisy, confusing, and long, with overlapping talk. After some trial and error, Pohl instructed the lawyers to speak in “bite-sized chunks.” The interpreters ended up interpreting complaints about the quality of their interpretation.
7. The Audio Feed: On a forty-second delay, because of classified information, it cut out a few times, once apparently because of the mention of torture—which has long since ceased being a secret.
6. The Judge’s Reading Material: Defense lawyers questioned Pohl about his fitness to run the trial, asking about his religion (he declined to answer) and reading list (“The Black Banners,” by Ali Soufan and about ten pages of the 9/11 Commission report, among other things). Pohl said that he thought journalists tended to get things wrong. (“Gitmo media center groans,” tweets Rosenberg.)
5. The Defendant’s Reading Material: “One detainee, Ali Abd al Aziz Ali, had a copy of the Economist magazine, which he appeared to be reading and later handed to a detainee sitting behind him, Mustafa al Hawsawi, who leafed through it,” Charlie Savage, of the Times, reported. It appears to have been the April 21st issue, with articles on hunger in Yemen and couples sharing housework.
4. What Was That About Qaddafi?: “The era of Qaddafi is over but you have Qaddafi in the camp,” Ramzi Bin al-Shibh yells. Alive and well and living in Gitmo? Apparently, the line was meant metaphorically. Al-Shibh also says he might be murdered and made to look like a suicide.
3. The Shirtless Defendant: Bin Attash, the one-legged defendant, took off his shirt, in order, he said, to show scars on his arms. “No, no, no,” Pohl said. “You will put your shirt on.”
2. The Covered Lawyer: “I’m not suggesting everyone in the room wear what I’m wearing,” bin Attash’s lawyer, Cheryl Bormann, said. She was wearing a black abaya and hijab, and talked about how distracting it would be for the defendants if the women on the prosecution team didn’t dress modestly. According to reporters there, all of those women were dressed perfectly professionally, in skirt suits or military dress.
And, above all,
1. The Venue: What should be the most important trial of our time is being improvised in a newly cobbled-together fake court, in which no side seems to have figured out the most basic rules. This was a big reason why everything took so long, with everything disputed, and went so quickly off the rails. Yes, the 9/11 defendants were always going to try to make a spectacle of things. Defendants have tried to do that for centuries, which is why our federal courts have a wealth of jurisprudence for dealing with that issue, as well as with problems of classification and evidence and the many intricacies of terrorism and conspiracy prosecutions. Instead, our government has decided that it’s preferable to make this one up as it goes along. On Saturday, it showed.