Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Several Guantanamo Detainees Charged in the 9/11 Attacks Seek to Plead Guilty

The New York Times is reporting that five Guantanamo detainees charged with coordinating the September 11 attacks told a military judge on Monday that they wish to confess in full and enter pleas of guilty.

The request, which was the result of hours of private meetings among the detainees, appeared intended to undercut the government’s plan for a high-profile trial while drawing international attention to what some of the five men have said was a desire for martyrdom.

But the military judge, Col. Stephen R. Henley of the Army, said a number of legal questions about how the commissions are to deal with capital cases had to be resolved before guilty pleas could be accepted.

The case is likely to remain in limbo for weeks or months, presenting the Obama administration with a new issue involving detainees at the naval base at Guantánamo Bay to resolve when it takes office next month.

At the start of what had been listed as routine proceedings Monday, Judge Henley said he had received a written statement from the five men dated Nov. 4 saying they planned to stop filing legal motions and “to announce our confessions to plea in
full.”

Speaking in what has become a familiar high-pitched tone in the cavernous courtroom here, the most prominent of the five, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, said, “we don’t want to waste our time with motions.”

“All of you are paid by the U.S. government,” continued Mr. Mohammed, who has described himself as the mastermind of the 2001 attacks. “I’m not trusting any American.”

Mr. Mohammed and the others presented their decision almost as a dare to the American government. When Judge Henley raised questions about the procedure for imposing the death penalty after a guilty plea, some of the detainees immediately suggested they might change their minds if they could not be assured they would be executed.

The announcement Monday sent shockwaves through the biggest case in the war crimes system here — the case for which some government officials say the system was expressly devised. With the case suddenly at a critical juncture, President-elect Barack Obama may find it more complicated to carry out his pledge to close the detention camp here.

. . .

In Monday’s session, which was covered by an international press corps from the Arab world, Spain, Brazil, Japan and elsewhere, Judge Henley directed prosecutors to submit full legal arguments by Jan. 4 on the procedures in capital cases outlined by the Military Commissions Act, which governs proceedings here.

Among other fundamental issues, Judge Henley asked for analysis of whether the men could be sentenced to death if they pleaded guilty instead of being found guilty by a panel of military officers. Because this week’s proceedings were to consider legal motions to be decided by the judge, no panel was present.

Another potential hurdle to guilty pleas was a claim by lawyers for two of the detainees that they may not be mentally competent to represent themselves.

The judge ruled that those two detainees could not make decisions about their cases on Monday. The two are Mr. bin al-Shibh and Mustafa al-Hawsawi, charged as a Qaeda financial operative. In addition to Mr. Mohammed, the other detainees are Walid bin Attash, who is accused of selecting many of the hijackers, and Ammar
al-Baluchi, a nephew of Mr. Mohammed who is said to have been one of his key deputies in the Sept. 11 plot.

The judge said the competency issues might not be resolved for a substantial period. The three detainees who are representing themselves said they would wait to enter a plea, as Mr. Mohammed put it, “until a decision is made about our brothers.”

The judge ruled that he would permit the three men who represent themselves to withdraw motions filed on their behalf, which would set the stage for a guilty plea.

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