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Alleged Sept. 11 planners disrupt arraignment at Guantanamo hearing

Janet Hamlin / AP

In this sketch reviewed by the U.S. Department of Defense, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reads a document in court on Saturday.

Updated at 10:20 p.m. ET: GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- Accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-defendants defied a military judge Saturday by refusing to answer his questions, and one of them got up and started praying as the long-awaited arraignment of the terror suspects got off to a rocky start in a military courtroom in Guantanamo.

Mohammed -- dressed in a white turban and robe -- sat silently, taking off his headphones when Judge James Pohl first addressed him. "One cannot refuse to participate and frustrate the proceedings," a clearly irritated Pohl snapped.

"The reason he's not putting the earphones in his ears is because of the torture that was done to him," his lawyer, David Nevin, told the judge. 

Ramzi Binalshibh, another alleged 9/11 plotter, at one point disrupted the court by standing up and shouting -- first in Arabic and then in English --  that "the era of Gadhafi is over but it continues at this camp. Maybe you aren't going to see me anymore ... there are threats we have seen at this camp. Maybe they will kill us and say we have committed suicide."

When Pohl ordered him to sit down, saying such issues could be raised later, Binalshibh shot back: "The time to discuss these things is now, not tomorrow."

While families of the 9/11 victims watched in the courtroom, and on closed-circuit television at seven sites in the United States, the  dispute - and other protests by the defendants and their lawyers --  appeared to initially tie up the proceedings  in knots. 

The chaotic hearing ended with the reading of the 87 pages of charges, which took more than two hours. The judge then declared the court in recess until June 12. 

Binalshibh earlier brought the court to a halt when he stood up and then dropped to his knees in prayer.

NBC's Michael Isikoff reports from Guantanamo on the disruptions .

Another defendant, Walid bin Attash, sat in court in restraints -- apparently because of a dispute with guards -- and his lawyer said he couldn't participate because his client was "in pain." The restraints were later removed.

With his long flowing beard, Mohammed was a striking presence in the courtroom. But his refusal to utter a word -- despite repeated entreaties by the judge -- stood in stark contrast to previous court appearances where he has chanted Koranic verses, denounced  the United States, and taken credit for the terror attacks.


At left, a 2003 photo obtained by the Associated Press shows Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 attacks mastermind, shortly after his capture. At right, a photo downloaded from www.muslm.net purports to show Mohammed in 2009.

When the defendants declined to wear their headsets so they could listen to translations of the judge's questions, Pohl ordered a translator to repeat them out loud in Arabic. And he plowed ahead, asking each of the defendants detailed questions about their knowledge of the lawyers who had been appointed to represent them and whether they accepted them. None of the defendants responded and refused to even look at the judge.

During a break, the defendants could be seen leaning back in their seats, laughing, smiling and chatting among themselves -- apparently pleased with their ability to frustrate the judge.

The lawyers did their part, raising repeated objections. Cheryl Borman, a lawyer for Attash and dressed in a muslim hajib, objected to the attire of women members of the prosecution team, several of whom were dressed in military skirts with their legs showing.

"There are issues of cultural sensitivity here," she said. "I am suggesting the prosecution team make decisions of appropriate dress of their female colleagues so that our clients are not forced to look (at them) for fear of commiting a sin under their faith."

Nevin, Mohammed's lawyer, asked Pohl to force prosecutors to identify the men sitting in the back of the courtroom. "Given what Mr. Mohammed has been through with unknown, shadowy people it will affect his ability to proceed," Nevin said. The men were later ID'd as paralegals and FBI agents.

The tactics appeared designed to highlight objections their lawyers have raised to the fairness of the proceedings before a military commission.

In recent days, defense lawyers have filed motions objecting to rules that allow military guards to inspect the mail they send their clients, a lack of translators, and orders that make anything their clients as "presumptively classified."

The Obama administration had previously sought to try the suspects in federal court in New York City -- a move that stirred up a storm of political opposition. Since then, the case has been moved back to military court here at Guantanamo and some of the family members that gathered here this week said they are anxious to see the suspects brought to justice.

An online article purportedly written by al-Qaida members includes instructions on how to set fires in Montana. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

"I'm from Brooklyn and you know what, you face your, you face your fight," said Eddie Bracken, whose sister Lucy was killed in the World Trade Towers.

He said he wanted to see Mohammed and his co-defendants in the courtroom. "I want to see him eye to eye. That's the man that killed my sister -- him and the other cohorts or whatever you want to call them."

Background on the long, winding road to arraignment
Pentagon releases video of US troops interrogating bin Laden's driver
Honor student pleads guilty in 'Jihad Jane' terror plot
NYT: Role of torture revisited in bin Laden narrative
Bin Laden in hiding: Hatching horrific plots despite crippling attacks on al-Qaida 

It was the first public appearance by the five men in more than three years.

Mohammed, a Pakistani citizen who grew up in Kuwait and attended college in Greensboro, N.C., was joined by four co-defendants:

  • Binalshibh, a Yemeni -- allegedly chosen to be a hijacker but couldn't get a U.S. visa and ended up providing assistance such as finding flight schools;
  • Attash, also from Yemen, allegedly ran an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan and researched flight simulators and timetables;
  • Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, a Saudi accused of helping the hijackers with money, Western clothing, traveler's checks and credit cards;
  • Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, a Pakistani national and nephew of KSM, allegedly provided money to the hijackers. 

Like Mohammed, Binalshibh also earlier told the court he was proud of the attacks in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pa. 

Defendants before military commissions typically do not enter a plea during arraignment. Lawyers for the men said they were prohibited by secrecy rules from disclosing the intentions of their clients. 

Rachel Maddow points out that while fear and a lack of confidence in the American Justice system has forced terror trials like the upcoming trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to be held at Guantanamo, prosecutors were able to conduct a successful terror conviction in a Brooklyn court without any of the dire consequences warned of by alarmists.

But Jim Harrington, Binalshibh's civilian lawyer, didn't expect any of the defendants to plead guilty, The Associated Press reported.

And attorney James Connell, who represents al-Aziz Ali, told reporters at the base that the arraignment is "only the beginning of a trial that will take years to complete, followed by years of appellate review."

"I can't imagine any scenario where this thing gets wrapped up in six months," he added.

Also in court Saturday were six 9/11 family members who won a lottery to attend the proceedings. 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 New York to honor the memory of Cliff's younger brother, Stephen, a firefighter killed responding to the attacks, AP reported.

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," he said. "but it's the most disgusting, hateful, awful thing I ever could think of if you think about what was perpetrated." 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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