GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba (AFP) — The appearance before a military judge of accused 9/11 conspirators has done little to quiet critics of the tribunal system conceived by the US government to try suspected terrorists.
This is the first major test for the extraordinary military tribunals set up after the worst terror strike on US soil. The tribunals were called off in 2006 by the Supreme Court but then were set back up by the then Republican-led Congress.
Since then the tribunals have faced a firestorm of international criticism, some US opposition and reverses that have delayed the opening of the first genuine trial.
"It was not justice, it was ridiculous," the military attorney for Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Major Jon Jackson, said Thursday after a hearing in the ultramodern new court building set up at the US naval base on Cuba's southeastern tip.
Appearances were kept up. The five accused appeared fit, each accompanied by a team of attorneys. And even if their exchanges with military judge Ralph Kohlmann at times veered toward the surreal, the tone remained polite.
But one by one, the accused refused their lawyers' assistance, and some asked to be executed so they could be martyrs.
"It hardly comes as any surprise that after holding individuals in solitary confinement for five years and subjecting them to torture, these detainees would reject the legal system and offers to represent them," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Earlier this year the CIA admitted that Khaled Sheikh Mohammed was subjected to the technique of simulated drowning known as "water-boarding" which has been widely denounced as torture.
Chief military defense attorney Colonel Steven David slammed what he said was the judge's rush to hold the hearing without giving the lawyers time to win their clients' trust.
Attorneys were able to spend little time with the accused, he alleged, while the prosecution has been preparing for years.
Although the issue was only brought up at the end of the hearing, the defense also strongly attacked the judge's decision to allow the accused to talk among themselves during arguments -- while the government for years has worked to keep the men from communicating with each other.
While the tone at times seemed light "it was clear that M. Mohammed was attempting to intimidate M. Hawasawi," argued Jackson.
Visibly angry, Commander Suzanne Lachelier, attorney for Ramzi Binalshibh, lamented that "what we saw today was a lack of desire to honor the principles that those kids are fighting for over there in Afghanistan and Iraq."
A former attorney of Frenchman Zacarias Moussaoui, who was convicted by a federal court to life in prison for aiding hijackers, Edward MacMahon came here to defend Wallid ben-Attash.
Like the five accused Thursday, Moussaoui also tried to ditch his lawyers and steer the trial, but "not everybody in the courtroom thought it was a great idea.
"The idea of the trial was to determine his sentence, it wasn't to allow the defendant to run the show, which is essentially what you saw in this courtroom," MacMahon said.
Colonel Lawrence Morris, the lead prosecutor, disagreed.
"Today you witnessed the continued, steady progress of the justice system," he said. "You stay here, and you watch every minute of this trial (...) and with that open mind, you will be impressed and stunned by the robustness of due process."
The prosecution has asked the judge to fix the opening of the trial for mid-September, a date that falls at the heart of the US presidential campaign. Defense attorneys and rights groups allege the timing is designed to influence the November election.
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