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Confessions throw Gitmo 9/11 trials into confusion

SHARE Confessions throw Gitmo 9/11 trials into confusion
A courtroom drawing shows Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, center, and co-defendant Walid Bin Attash at a pre-trial session on Monday.

A courtroom drawing shows Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, center, and co-defendant Walid Bin Attash at a pre-trial session on Monday.

Janet Hamlin, Associated Press

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said Monday he will confess to masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks, throwing his death-penalty trial into disarray and shocking victims' relatives who watched from behind a glass partition.

Four other men also abandoned their defenses, in effect daring the Pentagon to grant their wish for martyrdom. The judge ordered lawyers to advise him by Jan. 4 whether the Pentagon can apply the death penalty — which military prosecutors are seeking — without a jury trial.

"When they admitted their guilt, my reaction was, 'Yes!' My inclination was to jump up and say 'Yay!' But I managed to maintain my decorum," said Maureen Santora, of Long Island City, N.Y., whose firefighter son Christopher died responding to the World Trade Center attacks.

Santora was one of nine victims' relatives watching the proceedings, the first time relatives of the 2,975 people killed in the attacks have been allowed to observe the war-crimes trials. She watched from the back of the courtroom, wearing black and clutching a photo of her son in uniform.

Alice Hoagland of Redwood Estates, Calif., whose son Mark Bingham was on United Flight 93 whose passengers fought hijackers before it crashed in rural Pennsylvania, said the defendants should not be executed and become martyrs.

"They do not deserve the glory of executions," Hoagland said. "I want these dreadful people to live out their lives in a U.S. prison ... under the control of people they profess to hate."

In an about-face that appeared to take the court by complete surprise, the five men announced they were abandoning their attempts to mount a vigorous defense and instead requested "an immediate hearing session to announce our confessions."

However, that didn't mean they had repented.

"I reaffirm my allegiance to Osama bin Laden," Ramzi Binalshibh blurted out in Arabic at the end of the hearing. "I hope the jihad continues and I hope it hits the heart of America with weapons of mass destruction."

Hamilton Peterson, of Bethesda, Md., whose father and stepmother died on United 93, said the defendants showed a "complete lack of contrition" and deserved to be executed.

The formal confessions were delayed, however, when the judge said two of the defendants couldn't enter pleas until the court determines their mental competency. The other three said they would wait as well.

"Our plea request was based on joint strategy," defendant Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali said.

In a letter read aloud by the judge, the defendants implied they want to plead guilty, but did not specify whether they will admit to specific charges.

Their letter was so unexpected that the judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley, was unsure how to proceed. He noted that the law specifies that only defendants unanimously convicted by a jury can be sentenced to death in the tribunals. No jury has been seated.

Army Col. Lawrence Morris, the chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo tribunals, said he expects a jury would be created to hear evidence in a sentencing phase of the trial and would decide on what punishment to mete out to the defendants.

Hoagland told reporters that she hopes President-elect Barack Obama, "an even-minded and just man," would ensure the five men are punished, though she stressed that wouldn't heal the loss of her son.

"I do not seek closure in my life," she said, blinking back tears.

Mohammed, who has already told a military panel he was the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, said he has no faith in the judge, his Pentagon-appointed lawyers or President George W. Bush.

Sporting a chest-length gray beard, Mohammed told the judge in English: "I don't trust you."

The five defendants said they decided on Nov. 4 — the day Obama was elected — to abandon their defenses against the capital charges. Obama opposes the trials and has pledged to close the detention center, which holds some 250 men.

Even if trials are held, it is unlikely any would be completed before Obama takes office on Jan. 20. Still, the U.S. military is pressing forward with the case until it receives orders to the contrary.

"We serve the sitting president and will continue to do so until President-elect Obama takes office," said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.

Human rights observers said the judge's uncertainty about sentencing highlights problems with America's first war-crimes trials since World War II, and is further evidence that they should be shut down, as Obama has pledged to do.

"The fact that the judge doesn't know whether they can be sentenced to death in one of the most important trials in U.S. history shows the circus-like atmosphere of the military commissions," said Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch. "These cases belong in federal court."

One observer who lost his parents in the attacks said he supports holding the trials at Guantanamo Bay.

"The U.S. is doing its best to prove to the world that this is a fair proceeding," said Hamilton Peterson of Bethesda, Md., whose parents Donald and Jean were on United Flight 93.

"It was stunning to see today how not only do the defendants comprehend their extensive rights ... they are explicitly asking the court to hurry up because they are bored with the due process they are receiving."