GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – Two alleged orchestrators of the 2001 attacks on America casually declared their guilt on Monday in a messy and perhaps final session of the Guantanamo war crimes court.
This week's military hearings could be the last at Guantanamo — President-elect Barack Obama has said he would close the offshore prison and many expect him to suspend the military tribunals and order new trials in the U.S.
Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed architect of the terrorist attacks, were unapologetic about their roles during a series of outbursts as translators struggled to keep up and the judge repeatedly sought to regain control.
"We did what we did; we're proud of Sept. 11," announced Binalshibh, who has said he wants to plead guilty to charges that could put him to death. The judge must first determine if he is mentally competent to stand trial.
Mohammed shrugged off the potential death sentence for the murder of nearly 3,000 people in the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We don't care about capital punishment," said Mohammed, whose thick gray beard flows to the top of his white prison jumpsuit. "We are doing jihad for the cause of God."
Mohammed, representing himself, insisted that a uniformed lawyer assigned to assist him be removed from his defense table, saying he represents the "people who tortured me."
In another diatribe over secrecy, the acknowledged terrorist ridiculed the government's position that national security had to be protected. "They want to hide their black sites, their torture techniques," he said.
Told by the judge to limit his remarks to a legal issue being discussed at that moment, Mohammed bristled: "This is terrorism, not court. You don't give me the opportunity to talk."
Relatives of three people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks who attended the hearing as observers said they were appalled by the remarks of the defendants and hope that Obama does not halt the war crimes trials.
"If they're guilty ... then let's give them the death penalty that they deserve," said Jim Riches of Brooklyn, N.Y. whose 29-year-old firefighter son, Jimmy, was killed at the World Trade Center. "It would be nice to know the people who planned this, who killed my son and all the other people, are being held accountable."
Mohammed has openly sought to become a martyr at the hands of the Americans. He threw his death-penalty trial into disarray in December when he declared that he would confess to masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks. In March 2007, he told a military panel that he played a central role in about 30 other terrorist plots around the world.
Separately, a judge held pretrial hearings for Omar Khadr, who was 15 when he allegedly killed a U.S. soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer of Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a grenade during a battle in Afghanistan in 2002.
Lawyers for the Toronto, Canada native want to exclude statements they say Khadr made through torture and coercion. Prosecution witnesses denied their allegation. One, identified only as "interrogator 11," characterized some sessions as "lighthearted," and testified that "he always came in smiling and very willing to talk to us."
In both cases, judges denied defense requests to make the Pentagon arraign the men all over again after withdrawing and refiling charges in about 20 cases, a step the Pentagon described as merely procedural.
The judge in the Sept. 11 case, Army Col. Stephen Henley, acknowledged doubts about the future of the hearings, saying one legal matter could be addressed "at later sessions, if later sessions are scheduled."
Lawyers and representatives of human rights groups who observed the hearings believe Obama will suspend the military commission system created by Congress and President George W. Bush in 2006 to prosecute dozens of men held at Guantanamo.
Obama's nominee for attorney general, Eric Holder, in his confirmation hearing, said the commissions lack sufficient legal protections for the defendants, and said they could be tried in the United States.
"The military commissions should be at the very least suspended immediately," said Gabor Rona, observing as the international legal director of New York-based Human Rights First. "I'm certainly optimistic and hopeful that it will happen as one of the first orders of business."