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Guantanamo Court Convenes With Chaos, Boasting

Camp Justice, the location of the U.S. Military Commissions court for war crimes, at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay.
GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) -- Two accused September 11 plotters boasted of their guilt on January 19 when the Guantanamo war crimes court convened in a chaotic final session before the United States inaugurates a new president widely expected to halt the proceedings.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the September 11 hijacked plane plot, tried unsuccessfully to banish U.S. military lawyers from his defense table in the courtroom at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and complained when the judge tried to limit his comments.

"This is terrorism, not court. You don't give us opportunity to talk," Mohammed told the judge, Army Colonel Stephen Henley.

Mohammed, who could face execution if convicted, objected when a prosecutor characterized the charges against him and four co-defendants as the murder of nearly 3,000 innocent men, women, and children.

But he later told the court, "We don't care about the capital punishment...We are doing jihad for the cause of God."

Defendant Ramzi Binalshibh, whose mental competency is the subject of an ongoing challenge, told the court: "We did what we did and we are proud of this. We are proud of 9/11."

Pretrial hearings were recessed at least until January 21 for Mohammed, Binalshibh, and three other captives charged with 2,973 counts of murder -- one for each person killed when Al-Qaeda militants crashed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field.

Hearings were to resume on January 20 for Omar Khadr, a Canadian captive accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan in 2002, when Khadr was just 15.

"We're going to continue presenting our evidence until we're told not to," said Marine Major Jeffrey Groharing, one of the prosecutors in the Khadr case.

President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office on January 20, has said he will close the prison camp at Guantanamo and thinks the trials should be moved into regular U.S. courts.

Members of his transition team have hinted that Obama might issue an order freezing the 21 cases pending in the widely criticized tribunals established by the Bush administration to try non-U.S. captives on terrorism charges.

Disputes And Outbursts

The January 19 session for the September 11 suspects was punctuated by problems with the Arabic-English interpretation, outbursts from the defendants, and a dispute over the ever-evolving rules, all hallmarks of the Guantanamo hearings that began in 2004.

The Bush administration appointee overseeing the tribunals, Susan Crawford, quietly dropped charges in all the pending cases in December and refiled them in early January. It was a technical procedure aimed at updating jury pools assigned to the cases years ago.

Defense lawyers argued that under arcane rules, the move had nullified previous rulings in the cases, restarted the trial clock and required that the defendants be served with new copies of the charges and arraigned again.

Henley said the documents Crawford signed were "inartfully expressed" and "negligently executed." But he said a subsequent affidavit from Crawford made it clear she had intended only to replace jurors who had retired or been reassigned. He ruled that the charges stood and the hearings could continue.

Five people who lost loved ones in the September 11 attacks were brought to Guantanamo by the Pentagon to witness the hearing. They were infuriated by the defendants' boasting and by defense lawyers' concern for their rights.

"They say they're guilty. Kill them. That's all, kill them," said Joe Holland, whose son Joseph died in the World Trade Center attacks. "Right here, right now, same way it's going on, keep it going. There's more people besides those five that deserve a trial right here in Gitmo."

Jim Riches, a retired firefighter who found the body of his firefighter son, Jimmy, in pieces in the World Trade Center rubble, said moving the trials to another court might further delay justice.

"We're not angry at Obama, we don't know what he's going to do," Riches said. "We're angry at those terrorists for killing our children, 3,000 other people, banging them up to smithereens and little bits and pieces."