Flaws Mar Guantanamo Court

May 15, 2008 by  


By Randall Mikkelsen

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) – Osama bin Laden’s suspected “media director” rejected U.S. terrorism court proceedings and renewed his allegiance to the al Qaeda leader on Wednesday in a hearing marred by technical flaws in a new Guantanamo courtroom.

With the lights momentarily out from a power failure in the windowless military courtroom set up to try Guantanamo prisoners, Al Hamza Ahmad Suliman al Bahlul declined to enter a plea at his arraignment on three terrorism related charges.

He had earlier held up a handwritten “boycott” sign and declined to answer when asked whether he was rejecting his military attorney, though in a lengthy statement to the court he indicated he would not contest his charges.

“I will never deny that I have done any act, that I have participated with bin Laden in fighting you or your allies, the Jews,” Bahlul said. “We will continue in our jihad and nothing is going to stop us.”

The power failure and technical problems repeatedly disrupted what was the first hearing in the new courtroom, part of a $12 million complex built to handle a wave of trials expected to begin later this month at the U.S. naval base in southeastern Cuba.

“I think they should hire Mr. Bahlul to do a sound check next time,” said Air Force Maj. David Frakt, a military lawyer assigned to represent Bahlul. Prosecutors describe Bahlul as an audio-visual expert for al Qaeda.

The Yemeni prisoner was charged with conspiracy, solicitation to commit murder and providing material support for terrorism. He was accused of preparing a propaganda video glorifying the attack on the American destroyer Cole, preparing the videotaped will of September 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta, and operating computer and communications gear for bin Laden.

“I am renewing my allegiance to Sheikh Osama bin Laden,” said the bearded Bahlul, who wore a loose green shirt as he sat at the defense table with two military guards behind him.

Military security stood to surround Bahlul when the lights went out, and an alarm beeped.

The session continued in the darkness. Bahlul did not respond when asked whether he wished to enter a plea. “Apparently not,” said the judge, Army Col. Peter Brownback.

‘Media Man’

Earlier audio-visual flaws prevented journalists and rights observers from hearing the opening proceedings in the viewers’ gallery behind a soundproof double-glass curtain.

The problems also frustrated Brownback, who moved about the courtroom in search of a working microphone and complained, “I don’t know what’s wrong with the audio in this place.”

Bahlul was unruffled, telling the court, “I don’t care that you interrupt the media from listening. Trust me, I am a media man myself, I know the effect of the media, but I really don’t care.”

Brownback allowed Bahlul to act as his own attorney for now, but kept Frakt on standby basis. Frakt said Bahlul’s self-representation creates big problems for the military — such as whether Bahlul can see classified evidence against him or how he can review any case material, given the absence of computers in the prison.

Brownback set Bahlul’s next hearing for June 26-27.

At a later hearing in another courtroom, Afghan prisoner Mohammed Jawad relaxed his earlier rejection of a defense attorney and agreed to be represented, but only to contest the legitimacy of the Guantanamo court.

Jawad, who has said he was 16 when captured in Afghanistan in December 2002, is accused of throwing a grenade into a U.S. military jeep at a bazaar in Kabul and injuring two American soldiers and their interpreter.

“Mr. Jawad is an innocent man. He has been held for five years. He was a homeless boy wrongfully accused and beaten into confession by the Afghanistan police,” said Frakt, who was also assigned to represent Jawad.

The United States has held foreign captives at Guantanamo since January 2002, in a detention and interrogation operation widely criticized as a violation of human rights.

Charges are pending against 14 prisoners in the special court set up to try captives the United States considers to be unlawful enemy combatants who do not merit trial in traditional civilian and military courts.

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