9/11 defendants skip Guantanamo hearing

US naval base at Guantanamo Bay:  Self-declared 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four alleged co-conspirators skipped the last day of a week of pre-trial hearings Friday at Guantanamo Bay.

The five men, who face the death penalty if convicted, had received clearance earlier in the week from the military judge, Colonel James Pohl, in the tribunal on a US naval base in Cuba not to attend the proceedings.

The defendants had asked that Friday's proceedings be cancelled out of respect for their Muslim faith.

"Friday is the holiest day of the week for observant Muslims," the defense wrote in a motion. But the request was denied.

It was the first time this week that all five men opted not to appear in court for the hearings, which were held in preparation for a trial over the September 11, 2001 attacks to be held at some point next year.

Mohammed is accused of orchestrating the hijacked airliner plot that left 2,976 people dead, while his alleged Al-Qaeda accomplices are charged with providing funding and other support for those who crashed the planes.

In their absence on Friday, lawyers argued about the right to call witnesses, with the defense saying the prosecution has the clear advantage.

Defense attorneys say the proceedings are unconstitutional due to the prosecution's "unilateral notice of and control over" defense witnesses. One of the lawyers, James Connell, called it a "radical disparity."

In May, the defense asked that President Barack Obama, his predecessor George W. Bush and Vice President Joe Biden be called to testify, but the prosecution vetoed the move, as they can do under military tribunal rules.

Defense lawyers also wanted to call former CIA agent Jose Rodriguez to testify about the ill-treatment of Mohammed while he was detained in a secret prison.

"The rules are the rules," countered prosecutor Clay Trivett, saying there needed to be a "logical and legal relevance" to calling each witness.

The defense also asked that the proceedings be televised -- not retransmitted via closed-circuit to a room at Fort Meade outside Washington that is open to the press and the public, as well as to other sites open to victims' families.

"If these commissions are fair, why is the government afraid to let the world watch?" asked lawyer William Hennessy.

Mohammed, who skipped Tuesday's proceedings, appeared Wednesday in a military-style vest and delivered a scathing anti-American diatribe in what the judge called a "one-time occurrence."

The US president "can legislate assassinations under the name of national security for American citizens," the Kuwaiti-born Pakistani said.

In addition to felling the Twin Towers, Mohammed claims to have beheaded US journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002 with his "blessed right hand," and to have helped in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six.

His co-defendants are Yemenis Ramzi Binalshibh and Walid bin Attash; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, Sheikh Mohammed's Pakistani nephew; and Mustapha al-Hawsawi, a Saudi associate of Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden accused of arranging funding.

"He doesn't acknowledge the military commissions," Hawsawi's lawyer Walter Ruiz said of his client.

The next pre-trial hearing is set for December 3-7.

One relative of a 9/11 victim said he was growing impatient.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," said Alfred Acquaviva, who lost his son in the collapse of the World Trade Center.
Story First Published: October 20, 2012 21:43 IST

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