Accused September 11 mastermind sings in court

The accused al-Qaeda mastermind of the September 11 attacks stood in a United States military court on Thursday, sang a chant of praise to Allah and said he would welcome the death penalty.

“This is what I wish, to be martyred,” Pakistani captive Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the highest-ranking al-Qaeda operative in US custody, told the Guantánamo war crimes court.

He and four accused co-conspirators appeared in court for the first time on charges that could result in their execution.

As the judge tried to question him about whether he was satisfied with the U.S. military lawyer appointed to defend him, Mohammed stood and began to sing in Arabic, cheerfully pausing to translate his own words into English.

“My shield is Allah most high,” he said, adding that his religion forbade him from accepting a lawyer from the United States and that he wanted to act as his own attorney.

He criticised the United States for fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, waging what he called “a crusader war”, and enacting illegal laws including those authorising same-sex marriages.

The judge, Marine Colonel Ralph Kohlmann, tried to persuade Mohammed to accept an attorney, telling him, “It’s a bad idea for you to represent yourself.”

Mohammed looked old and portly and wore a long, bushy gray beard and big black military-issue glasses. He wore a neat white tunic and turban, in stark contrast to the saggy white undershirt he wore in photographs taken after his capture during a raid in Pakistan in March 2003.

Mohammed and co-defendants Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi and Walid bin Attash are charged with committing terrorism and conspiring with al-Qaeda to murder civilians in the attacks that launched the Bush administration’s global war on terrorism .

They also face 2 973 counts of murder, one for each person killed in 2001 when hijacked passenger planes slammed into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

Came willingly
All five defendants came to court willingly and none were shackled inside the courtroom, a spokesperson for the trials said.

Mohammed told a military review panel last year that he approached Osama bin Laden with the proposal to hijack passenger planes and crash them into landmark US buildings, then oversaw execution of the plan “from A to Z,” according to US military transcripts of the hearing.

But Mohammed cast doubt on that transcript in Thursday’s hearing.

“They mistranslated my words and put many words in my mouth,” he said in English.

The other defendants are accused of helping choose, train and fund the 19 hijackers, assisting their flight school enrollment and travel to the United States.

Their lawyers are expected to waive formal reading of the charges and defer entering a plea until they’ve had more time to prepare.

Prosecutors want to start the trial on September 15, a date the defence says was chosen to influence the US presidential election in November.

All five suspects, who could be executed if convicted, were transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006 after spending about three years in secret CIA prisons.

The CIA has acknowledged interrogating Mohammed using a simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding and condemned as torture by human rights observers.

Defence lawyers have said they will challenge any attempt to introduce evidence tainted by abuse.
- Reuters 2008