It was a sharp, unexpected statement delivered in measured Arabic in just a few minutes. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s comments to a courtroom in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on Wednesday were surprising. Mohammed is accused of being the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks in the United States he’s charged with war crimes and murder, and faces the death penalty if convicted. His trial hasn’t yet begun the court is hearing pre-trial motions this week.
It started when Mohammed raised his hand. Defence lawyers were making their case against presumptive classification – the idea that anything the defendants say will be automatically classified – and Mohammed indicated he had something to say. The courtroom seemed confused. And after some discussion, the judge hearing the case, James Pohl, agreed to a 15-minute recess so Mohammed’s lawyer could speak to him about what he wanted to say, and make sure it wasn’t classified and could be said in open court.
Sitting more than 2,000 kilometres away in a press viewing room on a US army base in Ft Meade, Maryland, I was confused. The room buzzed with ideas about what he might say. Something about the camouflage vest that he had just been granted permission to wear just the previous day. Or maybe the dye he used to colour his beard an autumnal orange that we wondered about. I’d made the hour-long drive from my home in Washington DC to Ft Meade for three days to monitor the hearings in case something happened. And this was definitely something.
When the video from the courtroom came back up, Mohammed spoke for several minutes, from his seated position at the end of a table where he sits with his lawyers. Journalists are not allowed to record any part of the hearings, so I typed furiously, knowing I wouldn’t be able to go back to listen to his statement again.
He spoke directly about his case advising, “When the government feels sad for the death, the killing of 300 people killed on September 11th, we should also feel sorry that the American government represented by General Martins [chief prosecutor in the case against Mohammed] and others have killed thousands of people. Millions.”
Mohammed continued on to reference the April 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, saying, “Many can kill people under the name of national security, and to torture people under the name of national security and defame children under the name of national security – underage children – I don’t want to be long but I can say that the President can take someone and throw him under the sea in the name of national security. And so he can also legislate assassinations under the name of national security for American nationals, American citizens.” The last sentence was a reference to two drone strikes in Yemen that killed Americans.
He ended with a plea to the judge: “My only advice to you that you do not get affected by the crocodile tears. Because your blood is not made out of gold and ours is not made out of water. We are all human beings.”
At the end of it all, I was stunned that this had happened. This had nothing to do with the motion being heard, and it seemed out of place to have allowed Mohammed to make the statement. Judge Pohl, too, appeared stunned, noting that while he didn’t interrupt Mohammed, this sort of speech was a one-time occurrence not normal to the proceedings. He said: “I’m not going to again entertain personal comments of the accused of the way things are going. This is his personal thought he has the right to that opinion but he doesn’t have the right to interrupt proceedings. This is not to be interpreted as this is an acceptable procedure. This was a one-time thing for Mr. Mohammed. That doesn’t mean each of the accused gets one time.”
A few minutes, the day’s session was over. Pohl recessed for the day, saying on Thursday he’ll turn his attention back to presumptive classification. And on Thursday, I’ll make the drive back to Ft Meade to see what happens.