In a legal otherworld, 9/11 trial defendants cry torture at Guantánamo


Finally, almost seven years after the horrendous attacks of September 11, 2001, the arraignments of five prisoners allegedly responsible for orchestrating and facilitating the attacks took place at Guantánamo on June 5.

60 reporters from around the world were in attendance, as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Walid bin Attash emerged from the shadows in which they have been held for the last five to six years.

The defendants in the 9/11 trial at Guantanamo

The five defendants in the 9/11 trial at Guantánamo are shown this sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin. They are, from top to bottom, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, and Mustafa al-Hawsawi.

Although all five were transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006, they were previously held in secret prisons run by the CIA — apparently in locations as diverse as Thailand and Eastern Europe — where they were subjected to what the administration euphemistically refers to as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” As these techniques include waterboarding, an ancient method of torture that involves controlled drowning, to which at least one of these men — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — was subjected, it was unsurprising that both Mohammed and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali made a point of mentioning that they were tortured.

According to the reporters who attended the arraignment, Mohammed — often identified simply as KSM, who admitted during his tribunal at Guantánamo last year that he was “responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z” — effortlessly assumed a position of leadership within the group, as the men, who had all been held in total isolation for years before the arraignment, “laughed and chatted like old chums,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Clearly baiting the judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, KSM responded to a statement by Col. Kohlmann, who interrupted a session of chanting to remind him that he “was told what he can and can’t say,” by replying, “I know I can’t cross that red line. I know I can’t talk about torture,” as ABC News described it. At another point in the ten-hour hearing, KSM called the proceedings “an inquisition, not a trial,” and added, pointedly, “After five years of torturing … you transfer us to Inquisition Land in Guantánamo.” At yet another point, as London’s Times described it, he “accused the authorities of extracting his confession by force,” saying, “All of this has been taken under torturing. You know that very well.”

KSM’s nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, who is accused of helping facilitate the attacks by transferring money to the 9/11 hijackers, also spoke about torture, while simultaneously mocking the proceedings. Speaking fluent English, he responded to Col. Kohlmann’s assurance of his right to legal assistance by stating, “Everything that has happened here is unfair and unjust.” He added, referring specifically to the offer of free legal representation, “Since the first time I was arrested, I might have appreciated that. The government is talking about lawyers free of charge. The government also tortured me free of charge all these years.”

Allegations of torture have haunted the arraignments and pre-trial hearings of other prisoners facing trial by Military Commission, but they are of particular concern to the administration in the cases of KSM and his co-accused. Evidence of torture would, of course, be inadmissible in a regular court, but although the judges in the Military Commissions are empowered to accept confessions obtained through “enhanced interrogations” (so long as they were obtained before the Military Commissions Act was passed in 2006), the authorities are so aware of how damaging revelations of torture would be to the Commissions’ reputation that they recently reinterrogated these men — and nine other “high-value detainees” transferred to Guantánamo with them in 2006 — using “clean teams” of FBI agents to gain “new” confessions that are torture-free.

The idea that the history of post-9/11 US torture can be erased in this way is darkly risible, of course, and as the comments of KSM and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali make clear, it will be impossible to proceed with the trial without torture once more raising its ugly head to impugn America’s moral standing, and to cast grave doubts about the quality of the “evidence” obtained from these men.

It could all have been so different, as Dan Coleman of the FBI explained to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer in 2006. Now retired, Coleman was a senior interrogator, who worked on high-profile terror cases in the years before 9/11 without resorting to violence, and he remains fundamentally opposed to torture, because it is unreliable, and because it corrupts those who undertake it.

Coleman told Mayer that “people don’t do anything unless they’re rewarded.” He explained that if the FBI had beaten confessions out of suspects with what he called “all that alpha-male shit,” it would have been self-defeating. “Brutality may yield a timely scrap of information,” he conceded. “But in the longer fight against terrorism,” as Mayer described it, “such an approach is ‘completely insufficient.’” Coleman added, “You need to talk to people for weeks. Years.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on AlterNet.

See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the stumbling progress of the Military Commissions: The reviled Military Commissions collapse (June 2007), A bad week at Guantánamo (Commissions revived, September 2007), The curse of the Military Commissions strikes the prosecutors (September 2007), A good week at Guantánamo (chief prosecutor resigns, October 2007), The story of Mohamed Jawad (October 2007), The story of Omar Khadr (November 2007), Guantánamo trials: where are the terrorists? (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo charged with 9/11 attacks: why now, and what about the torture? (February 2008), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (ex-prosecutor turns, February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), African embassy bombing suspect charged (March 2008), The US military’s shameless propaganda over 9/11 trials (April 2008), Betrayals, backsliding and boycotts (May 2008), Fact Sheet: The 16 prisoners charged (May 2008), Four more charged, including Binyam Mohamed (June 2008), Afghan fantasist to face trial (June 2008), USS Cole bombing suspect charged (July 2008), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s trial approved, July 2008), A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008), Salim Hamdan’s sentence signals the end of Guantánamo (August 2008), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), Another Insignificant Afghan Charged (September 2008), Seized at 15, Omar Khadr Turns 22 in Guantánamo (September 2008), Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? (September 2008), two articles exploring the Commissions’ corrupt command structure (The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, and New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials, October 2008), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (five trials dropped, October 2008), The collapse of Omar Khadr’s Guantánamo trial (October 2008), Corruption at Guantánamo (legal adviser faces military investigations, October 2008), An empty trial at Guantánamo (Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, October 2008), Life sentence for al-Qaeda propagandist fails to justify Guantánamo trials (al-Bahlul, November 2008), Guilt by Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), 20 Reasons To Shut Down The Guantánamo Trials (profiles of all the prisoners charged, November 2008), How Guantánamo Can Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008), More Dubious Charges in the Guantánamo Trials (two Kuwaitis, November 2008), The End of Guantánamo (Salim Hamdan repatriated, November 2008), Torture, Preventive Detention and the Terror Trials at Guantánamo (December 2008), Is the 9/11 trial confession an al-Qaeda coup? (December 2008), The Dying Days of the Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns Chaotic Trials (Lt. Col. Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Torture taints the case of Mohamed Jawad (January 2009), Bush Era Ends with Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right to Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009).

And for a sequence of articles dealing with the Obama administration’s response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Many Failures Of US Politicians (May 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), A Broken Circus: Guantánamo Trials Convene For One Day Of Chaos (June 2009), Obama Proposes Swift Execution of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators (June 2009), Obama’s Confusion Over Guantánamo Terror Trials (June 2009).

9 Responses

  1. Pablo Escobar says...

    I would like to know if your book has details on Mamdouh Habib, one of the Australian detainees at Guantanamo Bay?

  2. Recent Faves Tagged With "otherworld" : MyNetFaves says...

    […] Paranormal picnic welcomes those with an otherworld curiosity First saved by wli | 4 days ago In a legal otherworld, 9/11 trial defendants cry torture at Guantánamo First saved by trainwrecka | 20 days ago Voice First saved by porkinabox | 61 days ago […]

  3. The Dying Days of the Guantánamo Trials says...

    […] successful. The arraignment and pre-trial hearings of KSM et al. attracted widespread attention in June, September and December, and the trial of Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, also drew a […]

  4. Obama Chronicles » Andy Worthington: Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right To Halt The Guantanamo Trials - all the Obama news, all the time says...

    […] self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, whose previous appearances at pre-trial hearings (in June, September and December last year) attracted substantial media attention. Commentators suggested […]

  5. » Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right To Halt The Guantánamo Trials says...

    […] self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, whose previous appearances at pre-trial hearings (in June, September and December last year) attracted substantial media attention. Commentators suggested […]

  6. jjray says...

    Now that we know KSM was waterboarded 183 times, they stand zero chance of actually going to trial. The “trial” would turn into an indictment of US torture. My prediction is that the US government finds a third-part to take the 20 or so alleged terrorists at GITMO they refuse to release. Once beyond US law, we’ll never see or hear them again.

  7. Military Commissions Revived: Don’t Do It, Mr. President! « says...

    […] 2008), Fact Sheet: The 16 prisoners charged (May 2008), Afghan fantasist to face trial (June 2008), 9/11 trial defendants cry torture (June 2008), USS Cole bombing suspect charged (July 2008), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s […]

  8. The Full List of Prisoners Charged in the Military Commissions at Guantánamo | Patriot News II says...

    […] 11, 2008. Pre-trial hearings took place from June 2008 until President Bush left office. See here, here and […]

  9. Another Torture Victim Gets Charged says...

    […] subjected to waterboarding in CIA custody: al-Nashiri, KSM (put forward for trial in February and arraigned last month), and Abu Zubaydah (who has not yet been charged, perhaps because of conflicts over his […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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