Page last updated at 03:05 GMT, Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Guantanamo sees 'extraordinary day'

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Guantanamo Bay

Camp Justice (8 December 2008)
The military tribunal may never go ahead in its current form, analysts say

"I want to send my greetings to Osama Bin Laden and reaffirm my allegiance. I hope the Jihad will continue and strike the heart of America with all kinds of weapons of mass destruction."

Those chilling words were delivered by Ramzi Binalshibh through a translator at the close of the first day of the pre-trial military hearing at Guantanamo Bay.

Mr Binalshibh is one of the five men accused of plotting the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001.

His comments were heard in person by some of the families of the victims of 9/11 - who for the first time had a chance to see the alleged plotters in the flesh.

It was an extraordinary day in court for many reasons:

  • The military trials process is untried and untested and has been widely condemned and criticised by President-elect Barack Obama.
  • It saw a rare appearance of the five alleged plotters of the attacks - including the alleged mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - that killed almost 3,000 people in 2001.
  • And it was the first time that members of the families of the victims of 9/11 had been flown in to witness the proceedings.

Court ringleader

The nine relatives - from five families - sat in court behind a glass screen. They were shielded from the media present by a large blue curtain.

I only caught a glimpse of them on my way out of court. They sat sombre-faced as those accused of killing their loved ones fielded questions from the US military judge.

The initial focus was on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

The Bush administration has posed the question: how will President-elect Obama bring about justice?

He claims he planned the "A to Z" of the attacks, and according to Pentagon papers has taken responsibility for the 1993 attack on New York's World Trade Centre and the Bali bombings in 2002.

He has been described by the Bush administration as one of history's most infamous terrorists and is the self-proclaimed head of al-Qaeda's military committee.

He certainly seemed to be the ringleader in court.

He addressed the military judge in fluent English. His four co-defendants appeared to follow his lead.

When he signalled to the judge that he wanted to enter a guilty plea - the others did the same.

When he decided to postpone making that plea - so did the others.

Mr Mohammed was the first to dispense with his military lawyer and the first to make clear that he was seeking martyrdom.

He even tried to get an assurance from the judge that he would receive the death penalty.

'Fair trial'

So what did the nine family members of the 9/11 victims - specially flown in to Guantanamo to witness the proceedings - make of it all?

In a news conference at the end of the day they expressed a mixture of relief and loathing.

But above all they spoke of a sense of "pride" in the fact that these men were in their view being given a "fair trial".

Maureen Santora - whose firefighter son was killed in the World Trade Center - said she knew of "no other country that would do the same".

Artist's sketch of 9/11 suspects in court. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is centre (8 December 2008)
Mr Mohammed (centre) said he wanted to dispense with his US military lawyer

Alice Hoagland - whose son Mark died on United Airlines flight 93, the plane that the passengers tried to wrestle control of from the hijackers - said the whole process showed that America had sought to ensure that the defendants' rights and privileges had been preserved.

She is the only one of the nine who spoke out against the death penalty, preferring that the five should face life in prison if found guilty.

A number of the relatives said the fact that defendants had been allowed to interrupt the court proceedings for prayers proved that they were being treated fairly.

'Show trial'

Contrast that with the defence team, who gave their own news conference half an hour later.

Michael Berrigan - the deputy chief defence counsel - called it a "show trial" driven by politics, not the rule of law.

Conspiracy, murder in violation of the law of war, attacking civilians, attacking civilian objects, intentionally causing serious bodily injury, destruction of property in violation of the law of war, terrorism and providing material support for terrorism
Hijacking or hazarding a vessel (except Mustafa al-Hawsawi)

It was, he added, the "death throes" of the military commissions process.

Thomas Durkin, the civilian lawyer for Ramzi Binalshibh, went one step further, asking why the families were being invited now?

He claimed it was an attempt to "politically blackmail" President-elect Barack Obama.

The defence team asked the media not to judge the process on just one day.

There is no doubt that the day's events will have only added to the pressure on Mr Obama.

While promising to close down Guantanamo Bay, and criticising the military trials process, he has yet to set out an alternative as to how these men should be tried.

And with the families of the 9/11 victims once again in the spotlight, the Bush administration has posed the question: how will the president-elect bring about justice?

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