War crimes tribunal marked by disorder

Yemeni captive spurns U.S. counsel, declares his loyalty to al-Qaida

The World


GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - In the most chaotic day of the war crimes tribunal here, a Yemeni captive rejected yesterday his Pentagon defense team and declared loyalty to al-Qaida before he was cut off just as he seemed about to explain his links to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"I am from al-Qaida," said Ali Hamza al Bahlul, 36, a self-styled poet from Yemen who refused to stand in respect for the colonels hearing his case.

Then, speaking in Arabic, he began to talk about "the relationship between me and Sept. 11" before a stunned Col. Peter Brownback III, the presiding officer, interrupted him in midsentence.

"Stop," Brownback ordered. Then, addressing the other members of the tribunal, Brownback warned that Bahlul's statement shouldn't be used against him. "You all understand that Mr. Bahlul is not under oath," Brownback said. "None of this is evidence in any way."

Prosecutor Navy Cmdr. Scott Lang disagreed and said he would file a motion to have Bahlul's statement used as evidence.

Bahlul is accused of being a propagandist for Osama bin Laden, and his court appearance was to have been a routine preliminary hearing in which the charges would be read and defense and prosecuting attorneys would spar over procedures.

Instead, Bahlul captivated the courtroom by spurning the two Pentagon lawyers who sat alongside him - Navy Lt. Cmdr. Philip Sundel and Army Maj. Mark Bridges - and then pledging loyalty to al-Qaida.

"I don't want an attorney representing me," he said. "I'll attend the sessions if it's mandatory. If I don't have to attend the hearing, I'd rather not attend."

At first, Brownback rejected Bahlul's request. Later, he agreed to refer the question to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's representative, retired Maj. Gen. John Altenburg, an attorney who supervises the process in Washington.

Bahlul showed little respect for the tribunal's procedure. Dressed in tan pants and an oversized gray polo shirt, probably purchased at the U.S. Navy base's mini-mall nearby, he refused to stand when he addressed Brownback or to rise when the tribunal's panel of judges entered or left the courtroom.

Sitting soberly in a leather chair at a polished wood defense table, Bahlul seemed unfazed by his surroundings after months in solitary confinement. Ignoring the lawyers assigned to defend him, he spoke directly into a microphone and engaged Brownback, who asked him about his qualifications to be his own lawyer.

Bahlul said he was acquainted with American culture and knew something about the law, specifically Islamic law.

The prosecution alleges that Bahlul served as a bin Laden bodyguard, even wearing a bomb belt to protect him, and that he made a videotape glorifying the October 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors.

His appearance brought into the open problems that the tribunal faces with Arabic translations.

On Tuesday, when bin Laden's driver, Salim Hamdan, 34, of Yemen became the first Guantanamo detainee formally charged with conspiracy, Brownback replaced a Lebanese-sounding interpreter with one from the Persian Gulf because Hamdan couldn't understand the interpreter's colloquial Arabic.

Yesterday, Arabic speakers in the courtroom noted profound problems with the simultaneous translation provided to the panel by the overworked, pre-screened contract interpreters who help U.S. soldiers talk to the detainees.

In one key instance, two court-approved interpreters mistakenly translated the Arabic word for "decision" as "confession." In another, Bahlul spoke of "Islamic and secular law" and the court interpreter translated the phrase to be "civil and local law."

The problem drew a rebuke from the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony D. Romero, who is attending the tribunal's sessions.

Today, a fourth Guantanamo captive is to go before the panel. Ibrahim Ahmed al Qosi, 44, of Sudan is accused of joining up with al-Qaida during bin Laden's years in Khartoum and working as a network payroll clerk.

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