By Jane Sutton
GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The self-styled mastermind of the September 11 attacks and four co-defendants told a military judge at Guantanamo on Monday that they wanted to confess and plead guilty.
The defendants said in a note to the judge that they made the decision on November 4, the day Barack Obama was elected to become the next U.S. president.
Obama has said he will shut down the widely condemned Guantanamo prison camp and try detainees in the regular U.S. civilian or military courts rather than the special Guantanamo tribunals created by the Bush administration.
Several of the defendants had said at previous hearings that they welcomed martyrdom, and they may have felt that opportunity slipping away with Obama's election.
The judge questioned the five, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has already said he planned the September 11 attacks "from A to Z," to ensure they understood the impact of their decision. All five could face the death penalty.
The judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley, said he would not accept any guilty pleas during the hearings this week and asked government lawyers to research whether the law underpinning the trials allowed him to accept guilty pleas in capital cases.
He read from the defendants' note, which began: "We all five have reached an agreement to request from the commission an immediate hearing session in order to announce our confessions ... with our earnest desire in this regard without being under any kind of pressure, threat, intimidations or promise from any party."
The note said all five wished to plead guilty and withdraw all pending motions filed by their military-appointed lawyers, whom they do not trust and have tried to fire.
"I am not trusting any Americans," Mohammed said in English during an appearance before the judge.
The announcement came as a surprise as the U.S. military resumed pretrial hearings at the Guantanamo naval base, in a remote U.S.-controlled corner of Cuba, for the accused plotters of the September 11 attacks.
If the defendants are allowed to plead guilty, the case would still go through several automatic appeals, so any death sentence would likely not be carried out for years.
But human rights observers urged the judge to delay the proceedings until the Obama administration could move them into the regular U.S. courts and try them under traditional rules.
They noted the defendants had been held for years in secret CIA prisons before being sent to Guantanamo and that the CIA has acknowledged subjecting Mohammed to "waterboarding," a simulated drowning technique widely viewed as torture.
"Allowing these pleas to go forward in proceedings that are widely viewed around the world to be a inherently unjust would be a hollow and short-sighted victory for the government," said Elisa Massimino, executive director of Human Rights First.
"Ultimately it would undermine the ability of the United States to obtain legitimate justice for the 9/11 attacks in our ordinary criminal courts," she said.
The hearings opened as scheduled on Monday even though the pending change in the U.S. administration made it unlikely the defendants' trials would ever be held at the base.
Mohammed, a Pakistani, 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.
There is no chance the case would 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.
The Pentagon arranged for members of five families who lost loved ones in the September 11 attacks to travel to Guantanamo for the proceedings, however.
Alice Hoagland, whose son Mark Bingham died in the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, called the defendants' announcement "a real bombshell" and praised the judge for refusing to hastily accept guilty pleas.
"I'm really proud the commission (tribunal) is not taking the bait and proceeding in it's slow, thoughtful and deliberate way despite ... the histrionics of these guys," Hoagland said in a reference to the defendants.
(Editing by Tom Brown and David Wiessler)