GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (CN) — Fifteen years and one month after 9/11, another day of technical legal arguments wrapped up in pretrial hearings for the accused. At the back of the courtroom, a woman held up a picture of the sister she lost in the attacks.
Theresa Corio pressed the paperback-sized photo of Diane Marie Urban against the glass in the galley, which separates the courtroom from the observation area where media, nongovernmental organizations and 9/11 family members can watch the proceedings.
Corio wanted to get the attention of the five accused 9/11 plotters on the other side of the mostly soundproof glass. It did not appear they noticed her or the picture of Diane, though Corio said at a press conference Friday afternoon she thought one of them glanced briefly.
Diane is believed to have been on the 78th floor of the south tower in the World Trade Center complex on 9/11. The 50-year-old Long Island woman worked for the New York tax authority.
As Corio watched the men, she noticed a difference in their attire from earlier in the week. She wondered out loud why they are allowed to have a varied wardrobe of kaffiyehs, a traditional Middle Eastern headdress, to wear to court.
“Bastards,” she uttered quietly with a thick New York accent.
Corio was not the only family member to approach the glass after the hearing. About four others joined her to look at the five men they believe bear responsibility taking the lives of the loved ones they lost that day – brothers, sisters, parents and in-laws.
These hearings can get bogged down – as they did Friday morning – in small details. Do the five defense teams have a joint agreement that could undermine the proceedings at some future point? If so does the military judge need to see it? The prosecution and defense can spend months preparing to argue these points.
But those small details do not seem to matter much to the dozen or so victim family members who made the long trek from Maryland’s Joint Base Andrews Air Force Base to observe the 18th round of pretrial hearings in this case.
There is still no trial date set, nearly 4 1/2 years after arraignments for the five men accused of plotting the mass killing on U.S. soil.
For the family members who stood watching the five men accused of murder, attacking civilians, terrorism, and conspiracy in the 9/11 attacks, it has taken far too long already.
“We look forward to a verdict and we look forward to justice, because it’s 15 years and it’s really too long,” Corio told reporters at the afternoon press conference. She expressed frustration with the “minutiae” of the arguments they heard this week.
A good chunk of the hearings focused on lingering medical issues some of the five accused men face, and a protracted defense battle with the prosecution to acquire the original medical records compiled on the men during their time in the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program.
One attorney, Walter Ruiz, said his client, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, was sodomized in CIA custody. Al-Hawsawi now suffers from rectal prolapse, which causes bleeding and the protrusion of his anal cavity. Ruiz said his client must reinsert that anal cavity after every bowel movement.
Al-Hawsawi was scheduled to undergo surgery Friday night to treat the 10-year-old injury. Accused of facilitating money for the 9/11 hijackers and providing them with Western clothing, al-Hawsawi was not present in court Friday morning.
During the afternoon press conference Ruiz called the surgery “a step in the right direction” toward acknowledging and rehabilitating his client’s torture injuries.
Some of the family members said it pained them to listen to these details in the arguments.
“Concerning their health and their torture, I could care less,” said Marcus Flagg, who lost his parents on Flight 11. “For the past 15 years, these five detainees have been alive. Whereas my parents and thousands of others have died,” he added.
Corio said she had looked forward to being in the same courtroom with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of 9/11, and thought it would be satisfying.
It was not, she said.
“You look at them and they’re so insulate and brazen,” she said. “They sit in their chairs, and they swivel around and speak with each other while the court is in session. Now if I did that, I would be held in contempt of court.”
The war court at Guantanamo functions differently from most state and federal courtrooms in the United States, offering an atypical visual experience that borders on theatrical. The five alleged 9/11 plotters are not shackled while in the courtroom. They sit at the end of five rows of tables next to their defense teams, and often speak to each other and their attorneys during the proceedings.
Sometimes they smile as they talk to each other.
Those in the galley can see what happens inside the courtroom live, but the oral arguments themselves are on a 40-second delay on a closed-circuit feed to prevent spills of classified information.
At one point during Friday’s hearing, Ramzi bin al-Shibh – who was barefoot at times – casually flipped through a book written in Arabic, which he then placed on top of a large plastic bin filled with his legal materials sitting on the floor beside him.
Al-Shibh is accused of helping to finance the 9/11 operation, finding flight schools for a German cell of hijackers and helping them enter the United States.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – who dyes his beard orange – wore his usual Woodland Pattern camouflage hunting jacket in court. He has said it reminds him of the jackets the Americans once provided the mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war, when the United States backed the Afghan fighters’ efforts to drive the Soviets out.
The accused men have been allowed to wear what they want in the courtroom since a 2012 order by military judge Army Col. James L. Pohl after litigation on the issue. Most of the defendants wear traditional Middle Eastern clothing to court and don kaffiyehs on their heads.
Court hearings at the Guantanamo war court are also scheduled around Muslim prayer times, with the court breaking for lunch around the noon prayer. On Friday, a green prayer rug hung over the back of Ammar al-Baluchi’s chair. He is accused of funneling $120,000 to the hijackers and helping nine of them travel to the U.S.
Abbreviating the accused mastermind’s name, Corio told reporters that she had Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in mind when she brought the picture of Diane to court.
“It’s very simple really,” she said. “I brought that picture hoping that I would see the defendants, especially KSM. And I held that picture up hoping that one of them, if not all of them, might look at it and be reminded of the 3,000 people they murdered.”
Corio said she also brought the picture because she wanted Diane in the courtroom with her, “as if she were there.”
“She was my baby sister,” she noted.
Chief Prosecutor Gen. Mark Martins had acknowledged the 15th anniversary of 9/11 at the Oct. 10 start of this round of hearings.
“Fifteen years is hard to fathom,” Martins said, noting that for family members “it still seems like yesterday.”
“We are mindful of that,” he added. “We are determined to move these proceedings forward with all appropriate speed and in accordance with the law and the appropriate procedure.”
Martins said the prosecution had met a major milestone – it completed discovery in all three active cases in the military commissions system.
“The government has provided more than 350,000 pages of discovery to the defense,” his written remarks said of the 9/11 case. “This information, while never meant to imply that justice can be quantified, nonetheless reflects methodical and deliberate movement toward trial.”
Included in this discovery, Martins told reporters, are materials about the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program. Martins said Pohl will now review the material, which will take some time.
The defense teams spent much of the week’s hearings rejecting the adequacy of the information the government has handed over so far. The prosecution has only provided “sanitized snippets,” Ruiz said at the press conference, indicating that another long stretch of litigation over discovery is on the horizon.
But the issue of time weighs heavily on the hearts of some of the family members.
Elizabeth Berry lost her firefighter brother on 9/11. Capt. William F. Burke, 46, had been helping lead people out of the south tower of the World Trade Center. It collapsed seconds after he went back in to help more people get out.
Berry has come to Guantanamo before, in July 2009. She said Friday she might not live to see the conclusion of a trial.
“I came here this time with the hope that someone would be able to offer me a timeframe for when the pretrial would end and the trial would begin,” Berry said.
“Sitting in the galley watching the pretrial motions and arguments confirmed for me and the other family members that this was going to be a very long process,” she said. “And one that for health reasons I may not live to see the end of.”
Berry did not elaborate on her health issues, but she did place the blame for the slow-drip proceedings squarely on the defense teams, whom she accused of waging “judicial jihad” by filing unnecessary motions.
“I have to say I am extremely frustrated by the actions of the defense team, who I think at this point are deliberately prolonging the pretrial phase, which is in their best interest – not in ours,” she said.
Berry said she had heard the term judicial jihad used recently. Jihad can refer to holy war, though it also refers to a Muslim’s spiritual struggle against sin.
The term appeared in the tile of a 2014 paper by Faisal Kutty of Valparaiso University, “Islamic Law in U.S. Courts: Judicial Jihad or Constitutional Imperative.” Kutty indicated the term originated with the anti-Islamic law movement, which he claimed in a footnote in the paper seeks to demonize the Islamic faith.
Defense attorneys for al-Baluchi meanwhile pinned the blame for the slow proceedings on the prosecution during the Friday afternoon press conference.
“They make up their own rules here,” said Alka Pradhan, human rights counsel for the Guantanamo Military Commissions.
The argument held as little sway with Patti Trentini as it did with Berry. Trentini lost her parents, James and Mary Trentini, on Flight 11. She told reporters that she will leave Guantanamo on Saturday without closure.
“My dad was an amazing teacher, who helped mold young people into better citizens,” she said. “Not much glory but an incredible amount of satisfaction,” she continued.
She described her mother as her best friend. She was “funny with a razor whip,” Trentini recalled.
“I miss my parents deeply,” she said. “I think about them every day. And to this day, over fifteen years later, I occasionally pick up the phone to call my mom, just because I want to tell her something about the day. And in that split second I’m forced to remember that they’re gone.”
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