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Sept. 11 Trials Postponed After Suspects Request To Fire Lawyers
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Sept. 11 Trials Postponed After Suspects Request To Fire Lawyers

National Security

Sept. 11 Trials Postponed After Suspects Request To Fire Lawyers

Sept. 11 Trials Postponed After Suspects Request To Fire Lawyers
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This week's military commissions of Guantanamo Bay detainees slogged or ground to a halt when the accused tried to fire their attorneys — again. Then excerpts shown from torture scenes in the film Zero Dark Thirty jolted the staid war court. The trials of some of the detention center's most prominent detainees have no end in sight even as President Obama hopes to close the Guantanamo facility.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week brought another session of the war court at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And once again, there was not much progress. U.S. prosecutors have been working for years to get a trial and conviction of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged 9/11 plotters. This process has been mired in seemingly endless pretrial motions. NPR's David Welna has been at Guantanamo all week, and he joins us on the line from just outside the heavily fortified court complex there. Hey, David.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Give a sense of what came up in courtroom this week.

WELNA: Well, you know, as often happens in these sessions, there was unexpected drama right off the bat when this war court convened on Tuesday. Walid bin Attash, one of the accused 9/11 plotters, told the military judge he wanted to fire his top two attorneys because he said they'd cheated him and couldn't be trusted. The judge refused, but since a defendant's legal representation is a big deal in a death penalty case like this one, the judge told bin Attash he was appointing a special counsel to help him continue his efforts to fire the rest of his legal team. Bin Attash is accused of running an al-Qaeda training camp, then announced he would not attend any more sessions of the war court as long as those lawyers stayed on his case. And then, Cheryl Bormann, the lead attorney, got up and asked to withdraw from the case because she said the restrictive, secretive legal system itself here is the real problem. The judge refused to let her quit, which - that would've caused a huge delay here, so she showed up in court the rest of this week, but her client did not.

SHAPIRO: With all of this pretrial back and forth, do you get the sense that this is getting any closer to actually coming to trial?

WELNA: Well, you know, we're in a period of pre-trial motions, and the defense has made thousands of them and will likely make many more. This military commission which meets down here every other month has some very peculiar rules. For example, the military judge cannot subpoena either witnesses or evidence. But another huge obstacle in that courtroom is the fact that all five of these defendants spent years in secret CIA prisons known as black sites and were interrogated by means that many consider to be torture. The defense team says the most important thing is to learn the truth about these defendants' CIA interrogations. One of those defense layers is Jay Connell.

JAY CONNELL: Torture infects the whole military commissions, and it's relevant to so many issues in them, from the question of whether there was outrageous government conduct in bringing them to the forum, to the question of what evidence will be admissible, either in their interrogation or someone else's, and the question of what the appropriate penalty is.

SHAPIRO: So, David, has there been any evidence of torture that's been handed over to the defense team?

WELNA: Well, you know, most of what the team has so far is what was included in a 500-page summary of a Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA interrogation and detention of suspected terrorists, which is widely known as the torture report. Now they're demanding the more than 6 million classified documents that went into writing the full report, which has not yet been made public. In the meantime, defense lawyers are trying to show the judge that they're getting less information than what the CIA has apparently shared even with Hollywood filmmakers. Yesterday, defense lawyer Connell showed in the courtroom some extended excerpts of a torture sessions in the movie "Zero Dark Thirty" that Connell says portrays the CIA's torture of his own client, who was sitting there and watching it, as well, along with the entire courtroom and relatives of 9/11 victims sitting in the gallery.

SHAPIRO: And what is the prosecution's perspective on all of this?

WELNA: Well, you know, just as the defense is focused on what happened after 9/11 to these five men who are facing possible execution, the prosecution is focused on what happened before 9/11. It has to make the case that all five were involved in planning those attacks and deserve to die for it. The prosecution's promising to turn over thousands of pages of documents to the defense by the end of September. Still, the chief prosecutor won't even guess when this might come to trial. Five years from now is the best guess from the defense team.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's David Welna speaking with us from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Thanks, David.

WELNA: You're quite welcome, Ari.

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