Â Â Squabble ensues onÂ whetherÂ the judge is unbiased because he has ‘a Jewish name’
Professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed took center stage in a military court Tuesday as he questioned the judge’s impartiality and acted as the de facto spokesman for his four co-defendants.
Mohammed, the highest-profile al-Qaida figure in U.S. custody, boasted at a 2007 closed hearing that he was responsible for 31 terrorist plots and the Sept. 11 attacks “from A to Z” â€” claims that U.S. officials said were exaggerated.
Mohammed’s interactions with the judge and his co-defendants on Tuesday underscored his taste for the limelight and sense of authority. The former al-Qaida No. 3 has led his co-defendants in raising challenges to the court and even assisted in getting a boycotting co-defendant to leave his cell.
Glaring at Judge Ralph Kohlmann from beneath bushy eyebrows and a black turban, Mohammed pressed the Marine colonel to explain how he could provide a fair trial as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces that are at war with al-Qaida.
“How can you, as an officer of the U.S. Marine Corps, stand over me in judgment?” Mohammed, who is acting as his own lawyer, asked in English. “How can you be unbiased, given your position?”
Mohammed also questioned the judge about his religion, his Marine training and his knowledge of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics Mohammed experienced in CIA custody before he and his co-defendants were transferred to this U.S. military base in southeast Cuba in September 2006.
Seeking to justify his question about Kohlmann’s religious faith, Mohammed declared that “there are some extremist organizations in America that are against us.”
“If you, for example, were part of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson’s groups, then you would not at all be impartial toward us,” Mohammed continued.
Kohlmann, wearing black judge’s robes over his uniform, responded that he doesn’t belong to a church now but has attended Lutheran and Episcopalian services.
He said he had seen references to the prisoners’ treatment in CIA custody but has not read detailed accounts of their experience. According to the rules set forth for the first U.S. war-crimes trials since the end of World War II, the judge can exclude evidence that he determines was obtained through torture.
But Kohlmann made clear his patience is limited. He scolded Mohammed twice for ignoring his instructions to stick to the topic at hand, and warned he could lose the right to represent himself.
“You are not going to have free rein,” Kohlmann intoned from the bench. “I will not allow you to act in a manner that is disrespectful to this court.”
The judge also disclosed he is scheduled to retire in April. If the trial is not completed by then, he said a new judge would be appointed.
During breaks, Mohammed pivoted in his seat at his defense table and chatted amiably in Arabic with his co-defendants, who sat at their own tables arrayed behind him â€” despite complaints that he used a similar opportunity in June to pressure the others to reject their Pentagon-appointed defense lawyers. His co-defendants later denied they were intimidated.
Kohlmann initially proposed beginning Tuesday’s pretrial hearing with questions from lesser-known detainees. But the other four defendants agreed one by one that Mohammed, seated at the table closest to the judge, should go first.
All five face the death penalty if convicted of their roles in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Mohammed also has offered himself as a problem solver. With his co-defendant Ramzi Binalshibh refusing to appear in court on Monday, Mohammed raised his hand and volunteered to help persuade him to come. The three others agreed to help as well and all four sent letters to Binalshibh.
Binalshibh, accused of helping the Sept. 11 hijackers enter the United States and find flight schools, agreed to leave his cell and came to court on Tuesday. In court, Binalshibh followed up Mohammed’s questions about the judge’s religion.
“As far as I know, your last name is Kohlmann, which is a Jewish name, not a Christian name,” Binalshibh said. The judge said his statement was inaccurate.
At the close of the hearing, Mohammed had one last request on behalf of his co-defendants. Noting that all five are Muslims, he said the clothing of some women in the courtroom was too revealing for them and asked the judge to ensure they are dressed “appropriately and modestly.”
“That request is denied,” Kohlmann responded immediately.