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Sept. 11 Suspects Arraigned at Guantanamo Bay

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. When the man who claims to have masterminded the 9/11 attacks made his first public appearance, he mocked the proceedings and invited his own execution. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, along with four other al-Qaida suspects, was arraigned yesterday in a military courtroom at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The appearance of the terror suspects offered moments of drama, including long debates between the accused and the judge. NPR's Jackie Northam was in the courtroom.

JACKIE NORTHAM: The arraignment was an opportunity to finally see five men long-accused of being intimately involved in the planning and the implementation of the worst terror attacks on U.S. soil.

There has been a shocking change in appearance of the central figure, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, since his arrest in Pakistan in 2003. Photos back then showed a slovenly and disoriented captive. Yesterday, Mohammed wore an immaculate white robe and sported a long, thick, grey beard. He had to push heavy black eyeglasses up onto his turban in order to peer at the paperwork in front of him.

Mohammed also appeared to be directing the four other defendants in the courtroom. It was the first time the men had seen each other since their individual arrests at least five years ago. The men laughed and talked for some 20 minutes before the judge arrived and continued to chat throughout much of the proceedings.

When Mohammed said he wouldn't be represented by American lawyers, the other detainees followed suit. Army Major John Jackson said he felt his client, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, was pressured and intimidated to join them. Unlike the other prisoners, Hawsawi looked sickly and thin and sat on a pillow in court.

Major Jackson testified that at one point Mohammed looked at Hawsawi and said, what, are you in the American army now, meaning he was siding with the U.S. if he accepted Major Jackson as his lawyer.

Major JOHN JACKSON (U.S. Army): That's what was said, and then other conversations were going on, and I can tell you from my impression it was clear that Mr. Mohammed was attempting to intimidate Mr. al-Hawsawi into not accepting me as counsel, intimidate. Mr. al-Hawsawi, my impression, I saw him in court, he was shaking. He was shaking about his decision that he was going to have to make as far as who his counsel was going to be.

NORTHAM: Jackson said the defense was concerned that the judge allowed the talking to go on for so long. Army Colonel Lawrence Morris, the chief prosecutor, said the government did not encourage talking amongst the detainees and said he didn't see anything wrong with them talking.

Colonel LAWRENCE MORRIS (U.S. Army): My reaction to that was five individuals who are pretty confident of each other, clearly know each other pretty well, have pretty long-standing relationships, pretty comfortable in that place, and I think we saw in some of their instances pretty proud of what they've done.

NORTHAM: It was also clear from the proceedings that some of the prisoners' ideology hasn't changed. One of the accused, Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, told the judge how he regrets not joining the hijackers on 9/11. His visa to the U.S. had been turned down before that. Al-Shibh was the only prisoner shackled throughout the proceedings. He grinned often and was argumentative with the judge.

At times the arraignment became a test of wills between most of the detainees and the judge, and by extension the legal system trying them for war crimes.

Mohammed denounced the trials, calling them an inquisition, and he said he welcomed the death penalty for his role in the 9/11 attacks because he's wanted to be a martyr for a long time.

By the end of the 10-hour arraignment, no pleas were entered, and no trial date was set. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.