Alleged al Qaeda propagandist: Convict me next
BY CAROL ROSENBERG
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — An alleged al Qaeda filmmaker with a flair for the dramatic set the stage for the first no-contest war crimes trial Friday by declaring a boycott until he is sentenced.
”It is a legal farce,” Ali Hamza al Bahlul, 39, of Yemen, told his military judge, Air Force Col. Ronald Gregory.
”You are the judge and I am the accused,” he said. “At the same time you are my enemy. We really don’t accept this kind of logic.”
The slight man with a thick, trimmed black beard came to court in prison issue flip-flops and a tan camp uniform. He is accused of being Osama bin Laden’s media secretary and producing al Qaeda ”propaganda products,” chief among them a recruiting video based on the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole off Aden, Yemen. Seventeen American sailors died in the blast.
Bahlul announced that he already had learned of a verdict in the case of Osama bin Laden’s driver, Salim Hamdan, 40, who was convicted at the first contested war crimes tribunal since World War II.
He wanted to go next, he said, but stay in his prison camp cell until sentencing.
His Pentagon defense counsel, Air Force Reserves Maj. David Frakt, said he was prepared to fundamentally sit on his hands and not challenge the government’s evidence, because the Yemeni wanted it that way.
”His wish is to boycott. I’m not aware of any obligation . . . to put on a defense,” Frakt said.
Even so, he said, it’s the prosecution’s responsibility to prove guilt in a system that presumes innocence.
Meantime, Bahlul “does not recognize the legitimacy or validity of these proceedings and therefore does not wish any defense counsel to do anything that purports to be on his behalf.”
Frakt added that he would consult his New Jersey bar and Pentagon supervisor.
In earlier court sessions, Bahlul has admitted to being a member of al Qaeda but denied any role in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
A succession of defense attorneys assigned to the Bahlul case since 2004 had asserted a series of ethical dilemmas in being ordered to defend an alleged terrorist over his objections.
One former lawyer, Army Maj. Tom Fleener, put a previous court on notice that he believed Bahlul had been tortured in U.S. custody.
”He wants a speedy trial,” Frakt, a professor at the Western State University College of Law, announced in court after explaining that Bahlul repeatedly rejected his legal services.
In doing so, he appeared to kick-start a congressionally mandated 90-day speedy trial clock, meaning he could be tried by Christmas.
Lawyers were to huddle later in the day to draw up a trial schedule.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jennifer Turner, an observer, said the trial, as shaping up, would reflect poorly on the United States. ”To proceed without Mr. al Bahlul, without mounting a defense, destroys any possibility of any appearance of legitimacy and fairness,” she said. “And that’s not American justice.”
The Pentagon’s chief war crimes prosecutor, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, said that the government would still seek to compel his attendance.
Trial in absentia is ”a lawful measure,” particularly if an accused is disruptive, Morris said. But “obviously, it opens the process to criticism.”
Bahlul, who was first charged in 2004 in on-again, off-again proceedings, has long been the most dramatic of the detainees facing war crimes trial.
He fashioned a homemade sign declaring ”muqata’a” or ”boycott” in Arabic, and as a byproduct taught a succession of American observers and attorneys the word, muqata’a.
Friday he offered a lesson in Arab World jurisprudence. ”In Arab countries they do have the trials in absentia,” he told the judge. “You can do that here.”
He also apparently borrowed on his tradecraft in proposing a state-of-the-art solution to authenticate his daily refusal to attend trial: Send guards with a video camera to his cell each time, he said, and he’ll record it.
To force a detainee to court, the military tackles and shackles the man in his maximum-security cell and brings him to the tribunal chamber, a process that can take an hour or more.
Bahlul faces three war crimes charges — conspiracy to commit terror as a member of al Qaeda, providing material support for terror and soliciting to murder.
Conviction carries a maximum life sentence.
Friday’s hearing was the last in a nearly six-week session of military commission cases that saw a jury convict one of the 265 Guantánamo detainees, and pre-trial hearings in the cases of 10 others.
Filed under: War on Terror