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Sept. 11 trial of 5 returns to Guantanamo

Friday - 5/4/2012, 6:51pm  ET

Associated Press

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) - The man who once bragged about planning Sept. 11 "from A to Z" may mount a defense after all to charges that he orchestrated the worst terror attack in U.S. history, with families of the dead watching intently from the U.S. on closed-circuit TV.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, charged with four others with planning and helping to carry out the 2001 terror attack that sent hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, will be arraigned Saturday at the U.S. military base in Cuba.

Mohammed had previously mocked the military tribunal and said he would welcome the death penalty. His co-defendant, Ramzi Binalshibh, also told the court he was proud of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pa.

But "I don't think anyone is going to plead guilty," said Jim Harrington, Binalshibh's civilian lawyer, who added the defendants are expected to fight the charges against them, which include murder and terrorism and carry a potential death penalty.

Harrington declined to say what would be the basis of his defense and lawyers for Mohammed did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The men, held in a secret prison in Guantanamo that is under such tight security even its exact location on the base is classified, have not been seen in public since a pretrial hearing the day after Obama's Jan. 21, 2009, inauguration.

Their arraignment comes more than three years after the Obama administration's failed effort to try the suspects in a federal civilian court and close the prison at the U.S. base in Cuba. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in 2009 that Mohammed and his codefendants would be tried blocks from the site of the destroyed trade center in downtown Manhattan, but the plan was shelved after New York officials cited huge costs to secure the neighborhood and family opposition to trying the suspects in the U.S.

Six family members who won a lottery to attend the proceedings will face Mohammed and the other men in court; others were watching on closed-circuit video at military bases in New York City and the eastern U.S.

Cliff and Christina Russell traveled from their Rockaway Beach neighborhood in New York to honor the memory of Cliff's younger brother, Stephen, a firefighter killed responding to the attacks. Cliff Russell said he hopes the tribunal will end with the death penalty for Mohammed and his co-defendants.

"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," he said.

The men never entered formal pleas in previous hearings, but Mohammed had told the court that he would confess to planning the attacks and hoped to be a "martyr." He dismissed the military justice system, saying, "After torturing, they transferred us to inquisition land in Guantanamo."

The arraignment is expected to be followed by a hearing on defense motions that challenge the charges and extreme secrecy rules imposed to prevent the release of information about U.S. counterterrorism methods and strategy.

New rules adopted by Congress and Obama forbid the use of testimony obtained through cruel treatment or torture. The defendants were held at secret CIA prisons overseas where they were subjected to what the government called "enhanced interrogation techniques." Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times, officials have said.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion Friday asking the judge to prohibit the government's use of a 40-second delay and a white noise machine to prevent any spectators from hearing classified information, including details about the harsh treatment in the secret CIA detention sites overseas.

"If the defendants are unable to express themselves directly to the American public then how are we to know whether justice is being served," said ACLU director Anthony Romero.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch and a former federal prosecutor, say coerced testimony from witnesses is still admissible, even if it isn't from defendants, and the case would be better off in civilian court instead of being heard by a judge and jury panel picked by the Pentagon.

"There still are major problems in terms of whether the trial will be fair and, more important, will they be perceived as fair," Roth said.

The government has pledged to make the proceedings more transparent by broadcasting the hearing to families at U.S. military bases. News cameras, however, are still not permitted inside the courtroom, where the media and other observers are kept behind double-paned, soundproof glass.

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