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Guantanamo hearings resume with trial in doubt

8/12/2008 - 14:38

By Jane Sutton

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The U.S. military resumed pretrial hearings at the Guantanamo naval base on Monday for five accused plotters of the September 11 attacks, even as the pending change in the U.S. administration made it unlikely their trials will be held at the base.

President-elect Barack Obama has said he will shut down the widely condemned prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and have detainees tried in regular civilian or military courts rather than at the special tribunals created by the Bush administration.

But Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-styled architect of the September 11 attacks in 2001, and four co-defendants went before a judge at the Guantanamo tribunal to litigate several pretrial issues in hearings scheduled to last all week.

Among them is whether the charges should be dropped because of allegations that political appointees and a high-ranking military official unlawfully put pressure on prosecutors to rush the charges and get the cases moving before the U.S. presidential election in November.

Mohammed, the one-time No. 3 in the al-Qaeda hierarchy, is acting as his own attorney and will be allowed to question a U.S. general who formerly had a key role in the tribunals.

Mohammed and four others -- Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi, Walid bin Attash and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali -- were charged earlier this year with conspiring with al Qaeda to kill civilians.

They face 2,973 counts of murder, one for each person killed when al Qaeda militants crashed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

The charges carry a potential death sentence. This week marks the fourth time the defendants have appeared before a tribunal judge at Guantanamo but there is no chance the case will be ready for trial before Obama takes office on January 20.


Obama's transition team has met with officials from the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions, which runs the tribunals, but details of the talks have not been made public.

In the meantime, the Pentagon is pressing forward with hearings.

"In the military that's what you do, keep moving forward to make things happen. You keep moving forward until you're ordered to do otherwise," said a spokesman for the Pentagon office that runs the tribunals, Joe Dellavedova.

The Pentagon arranged for members of five families who lost loved ones in the September 11 attacks to travel to the remote Guantanamo base for the hearing, marking the first time any victims' relatives have been present at the proceedings.

They were chosen by lottery from among more than 100 who applied, said a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. J.D. Gordon.

Mohammed, who said in a previous hearing that he welcomed martyrdom, told a U.S. military panel he planned the September 11 attacks "from A to Z," according to military transcripts.

The Pentagon has said it plans to try about 80 of the 250 remaining Guantanamo prisoners.

But nearly seven years after it opened the detention centre for suspected members of al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated groups, only two trials have been completed and one other defendant pleaded guilty to supporting terrorism.

About 520 other men and teenagers have been released from Guantanamo after being held without trial, many for several years.

(Editing by Tom Brown and John O'Callaghan)

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