Horror of 9/11 dominates Guantanamo military court

The hearings for the alleged plotters of 9/11 attacks were postponed until March, yet another delay in one of the longest prosecutions in US history (AFP Photo/THOMAS WATKINS) (AFP/File)

Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (Cuba) (AFP) - The horror of September 11, 2001 dominated proceedings in a Guantanamo Bay military court Friday, a stark contrast from earlier days of often-abstract testimony that rambled far from the events of 14 years ago.

The so-called "9/11 Five" -- the men accused of plotting the terror attacks that killed about 3,000 people -- were in court this week for pre-trial hearings ahead of an eventual capital trial that likely is still several years away.

Their prosecution, which dates back to 2008, is already one of the longest in American history, and allegations of government misconduct stemming from the men's capture and torture in the early 2000s have hampered efforts to nudge the case to trial.

The so-called 9/11 Five are: alleged mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid bin Attash and Ramzi Binalshibh of Yemen, Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali -- Mohammed's nephew -- and Mustapha al-Hawsawi of Saudi Arabia. All five face the death penalty if convicted.

Defense attorney Walter Ruiz estimated the case would reach trial in 2020 at the earliest.

Even prosecutors, who are more optimistic about the pace, said they wouldn't even have all discovery documents ready until the end of September 2016 -- Ruiz predicted these would be subject to "endless" litigation lasting up to 10 years, because questions over what the government can and can't classify are likely to come up.

Eight immediate family members from victims of 9/11 were among a select handful of people allowed to attend proceedings on this surreal US naval base wedged onto the southeastern end of Cuba.

They watched through triple-paned soundproof windows and heard testimony through a time-delayed relay that prosecutors could mute to prevent classified information being released.

- 'Faces of evil' -

Catherine Eklund, whose brother John Henwood, a bond trader, died on the 105th floor of Tower One in New York, expressed frustration at the pace of proceedings.

The defendants "are using us again and again and again," she told reporters at a testy news conference.

"Because we stand on this moral authority and we have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, and because we are the United States of America, we might have to suck it up until we finish this process. But it's very hard to do looking into the faces of evil."

Because American politicians have blocked efforts by President Barack Obama's administration to try the case in New York federal court, proceedings must take place at the Guantanamo military court.

Lead prosecutor General Mark Martins said he took a "different view" about how long case's duration, but he declined to speculate on a timeline.

"The rule of law requires that a process has to be taken seriously, you can't set it up with all the right principles and protections in place and then just decide you are going to dispense with it," he told reporters.

Earlier, in response to a motion to have the case dismissed claiming Obama and other officials apparently have already deemed the defendants guilty, prosecutor Bob Swann sought to remind military judge Colonel James Pohl what is at stake.

"One might expect that the leader of this nation... might have something to say when 19 men hijack aircraft and fly them into buildings," Swann said.

"No one can and should think that the presidents of these United States would remain silent when 2,976 of its treasures are stolen."

He went on to describe the "unprecedented shock and suffering" of 9/11 and described the deaths of hundreds of first responders and other victims.

Defense attorneys want the case dropped because they say any prospective jury pool is tainted.

"This process is undermined by the putrid stench of all the influence that has been visited upon it," said Ruiz, Hawsawi's attorney.

Defense attorneys also have a litany of complaints about government conduct, starting with the torture of their clients in the years following their capture.

They also say the government used bugs to listen in on attorney-client meetings and seized privileged notes.

While dismissal of the epic case is an extreme long shot, defense attorneys hope to at least persuade Pohl to take the death penalty off the table.

Much of this week's proceedings were dominated by a still-unresolved issue of whether women prison guards should be allowed to escort the strict Muslim defendants to the courthouse.

Attorneys allege that because detainees were subjected to sexual humiliation, including being smeared in fake menstrual blood, being touched by women makes them flash back to the torture.

Obama wants to close the prison at Guantanamo but has been frustrated by a reluctant Congress.

The facility has housed about 780 detainees since the start of 2002. Currently, 107 remain.