Accused September 11 attacker expelled from Guantanamo courtroom

Tom Ramstack
Undated photo released January 17, 2002 by the U.S. Government of Ramzi Binalshibh, one of five susp..
Ramzi Binalshibh in an undated photo released by the U.S. Government in 2002. REUTERS/File

By Tom Ramstack

FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) - An accused conspirator in the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington was expelled from a courtroom at the Guantanamo Bay war crimes tribunal on Tuesday for being disruptive.

During a pre-trial hearing in the death penalty case, Army Colonel Judge James Pohl discussed with the five defendants their right to be present during the courtroom proceedings.

Each of the defendants said he understood his rights until the judge asked Ramzi Binalshibh, who is accused of wiring money to September 11 hijackers and passing information to key al Qaeda operatives.

Binalshibh initially said he did not understand, but then started to complain about his prison cell conditions. He said guards intentionally made banging sounds that kept him awake at night.

Military officials denied the allegations.

Raising his voice, Binalshibh complained through an interpreter about "a secret CIA prison," during a hearing at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, which was monitored by Reuters over a closed-circuit broadcast at the Fort Meade, Maryland, army base.

As Binalshibh continued speaking loudly, Pohl warned: "If you don't stop talking, you will be escorted out of the court at this time."

The defendant continued to speak and Pohl asked the guards to remove him from the courtroom. Binalshibh was brought in again after lunch and, after another exchange with the judge, was ordered out again as he shouted: "I'm not a war criminal."

It was not the first time Binalshibh had been expelled from the court. Pohl also ordered him removed during a September hearing after he refused to stop shouting.

Pohl told Binalshibh's attorney that his client would be allowed back in the courtroom only if he answered the judge's questions and was not disruptive.

The U.S. military has identified Binalshibh and the other defendants as "high-value detainees" who played key roles in plotting the September 11 attacks, which killed about 3,000 people, destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City and damaged the Pentagon in Washington.

The five defendants are alleged al Qaeda conspirators who could be executed if convicted of charges that include mass murder, terrorism and hijacking.

The defendants were captured in 2002 and 2003 and were first charged at Guantanamo in 2008. The tribunals and the charges were revised by the Obama administration and the defendants were arraigned on the current version in May 2012.

Other issues raised during the pre-trial hearing on Tuesday included requests by defense attorneys to introduce evidence that the defendants were tortured by their U.S. captors. The defense attorneys also accused Guantanamo prison officials of interfering with their clients' rights to private communications with their lawyers.

Navy Commander Walter Ruiz, defense attorney for Mustafa al-Hawsawi, said military officials had delayed security clearances for qualified Arabic interpreters or occasionally provided inadequate interpretation for defendants trying to communicate with their lawyers.

He said the problems with interpreters created "interference with our judgment" as defense attorneys prepared their cases. He recommended the judge delay further court hearings to help defense attorneys make up for lost time as they compile evidence.

Al-Hawsawi, 45, is a Saudi Arabian citizen accused of being an organizer and financier of the September 11 attacks.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)