Nearly 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, the man accused of orchestrating the plot, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, has appeared along four other defendants, for the first hearing in over 18 months at a Guantánamo Bay military tribunal.
The trial of the five accused for their role in the attacks has yet to begin. The session which began on Tuesday was the resumption of pre-trial hearings, now in their ninth year and with no clear end in sight. They have been bogged down in procedural problems and the central issue haunting the entire process, the admissibility of evidence obtained by the CIA under torture.
The hearings were suspended in February 2020 due to the pandemic. Mohammed, with his distinctive red-dyed grey beard, attended Tuesday’s session with his four co-accused: his nephew, Ammar al-Baluchi, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi.
The pre-trial process has been going on so long that several judges and lawyers have retired or moved on to other jobs along the way, leading to yet more delays as their replacements are brought up to speed on the preceding years’ arguments.
Tuesday’s hearing was the first under a new judge, Lt Col Matthew McCall, the seventh to preside over the case. McCall was first assigned to the case almost a year ago, but prosecutors objected to him on the grounds that he did not have the required two years’ experience.
Most of the first morning of the hearing was taken up by defence lawyers’ questioning of McCall on his qualifications and his links to other judges and lawyers with past involvement in the case. McCall said that he believed the military commissions authority, which runs the tribunals, wanted a relatively junior judge so that there would be less risk of him retiring in the midst of proceedings.
“No one wants that again,” he said, according to tweeted reports from the courtroom.
Like Barack Obama, Joe Biden has pledged to shut down the Guantánamo Bay camp, but faces some of the same challenges, finding countries that would accept the 39 remaining inmates, and the deadlocked 9/11 tribunal, stuck in the limbo of pre-trial hearings.