GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – Confessed al-Qaida kingpin Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four accused co-plotters offered Monday to plead guilty to orchestrating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a move that could leave President-elect Barack Obama to decide whether to execute them.
The surprise turnabout came in what was meant to be a routine pretrial hearing.
The Pentagon seeks the death penalty for all five men. And the trial judge postponed any pleas until lawyers sort out two key issues at the first U.S. war crimes tribunals since World War II: whether two of the five men are mentally competent to join the others in admitting to their roles in the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil; and whether the 2006 act of Congress that created the war court allows accused terrorists charged in a capital case to submit guilty pleas, without a jury of at least 12 U.S. military officers present to hear them and the evidence.
Victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, among five the Pentagon sponsored to observe the hearings, offered opposing views on the prospect of executions.
“If there ever was a case that warranted the death penalty, this is the one,” declared Hamilton Peterson, who lost his parents aboard United Airlines Flight 93.
“They do not deserve the glory of execution,” said Alice Hoagland, whose son Mark Bingham died on the same flight, struggling with the hijackers to crash the airliner in a Pennsylvania field.
“We should ensure that these dreadful people live out their lives in an American prison, totally under the control of the people they profess to hate,” she added.
The defendants made no explicit mention of the death penalty, or “martyrdom” as Mohammed calls it, in an appearance before the tribunal judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley.
Instead, the judge asked each man whether he wanted to waive his right to challenge the charges, and whether he believed prosecutors could prove his guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“I understand,” Mohammed replied, going first. “I hope that you will assign a proceeding in the near future, as fast as possible, to get over with this play.”
Mohammed earlier had declared his distrust of the system and said he would not distinguish among any of the Americans staging the trial – from judge and defense attorney to President George W. Bush and “the CIA, who tortured me.”
The spy agency has confirmed it waterboarded Mohammed into confessing to plotting a worldwide string of terror, before his transfer to the prison camps here two years ago.
Added Yemeni Ramzi Binalshibh, accused of helping the Hamburg, Germany, suicide squad: “We the brothers, all of us, we would like to submit our confession.”
Nothing will happen soon. The judge instructed prosecutors to research and write a brief on whether the legislation that created the war court envisioned letting an accused plead guilty in a death penalty case.
Moreover, the judge said he would not accept guilty pleas from co-defendants Binalshibh and Saudi Mustafa Hawsawi until the court resolves questions on their mental capacity to stand trial.
The prison camp has Binalshibh on psychotropic drugs. He allegedly helped a Hamburg al-Qaida cell, whose members became some of the hijackers. The health issue of Hawsawi, the plot’s alleged financier, is contained in a still-classified memorandum his Army defense attorney filed with the court.
Mohammed appeared as his own attorney on Monday, his fourth hearing meant to set conditions for the joint conspiracy trial alleging the five conspired to have suicide squads hijack airplanes and then strike the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
Ultimately, the commander in chief has the last say on execution, and the case involving Mohammed and his four accused co-plotters is not likely to be settled before Bush leaves office Jan. 20.
Judge Henley disclosed the five men made their offer, signed by each alleged Sept. 11 conspirator on Nov. 4 – Election Day – after prison camp guards arranged for a rare joint meeting of the group.