The confessed architect of the Sept. 11 attacks and four alleged co-conspirators are to appear before a military judge Monday, even as the first U.S. war-crimes trials since World War II teeter on the edge of extinction.
Five relatives of victims of the 2001 al-Qaida attacks will also be on hand to observe the pretrial hearing of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at this Navy base in southeastern Cuba.
President-elect Barack Obama opposes the military commissions - as the Guantanamo trials are called - and has pledged to close the detention center holding some 250 men soon after taking office next month.
Mohammed and the other defendants will appear before Army Col. Stephen Henley, who was assigned to the case after the previous judge resigned for undisclosed reasons in November. The defendants, who are representing themselves, are expected to question Henley about whether any conflicts would prevent him from impartially overseeing the death-penalty case.
No trial date has been set, and it is all but certain none will begin before Obama takes office on Jan. 20. Still, the U.S. military is pressing forward with the case until it receives orders to the contrary.
"We serve the sitting president and will continue to do so until President-elect Obama takes office," said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.
Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch, who is also an observer at this week's hearings, urged Obama to try terror suspects in federal court "where attention will focus on the defendants' alleged crimes rather than the unfairness of the commissions."
The military commissions have netted three convictions, but have been widely criticized for allowing statements obtained through harsh interrogations and hearsay to be admitted as evidence.
While Monday's proceedings may be laying a foundation for a war-crimes trial that never materializes, the session could be dramatic. Mohammed has previously said he wants to be executed and achieve martyrdom, but has still mounted a vigorous defense, addressing the court and asking for materials to prepare his case.
The victims' family members, who were chosen by a Pentagon lottery system, will watch from a gallery at the rear of the cavernous, high-security courtroom and will not be allowed to address the defendants.
Maureen Santora, whose firefighter son Christopher was killed at the World Trade Center, says she wants to lock eyes with those accused of killing her son and 2,972 others in the bloodiest terrorist attacks ever on U.S. soil.
Relatives of about 30 more victims, mainly firefighters, have given Santora memorial cards that she plans to bring into court "to know their spirit is with us."
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