Discuss as:

9/11 mastermind, alleged accomplices return to Guantanamo court

Janet Hamlin / AFP - Getty Images

This courtroom sketch shows alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as he holds up a piece of paper during a court recess at his hearing on Monday at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Updated at 5:20 p.m. ET: The self-professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, which resulted in the deaths of 2,976 people, appeared before a military judge at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba on Monday after months of delays due to scheduling conflicts, religious observances, an Internet outage and a tropical storm.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed shocked some observers by appearing with a long, full beard that had been dyed bright reddish-orange. He appeared before Judge Army Col. James Pohl for the start of a week of pretrial hearings, along with co-defendants Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, a Pakistani; Mustafa Al Hawsawi, a Saudi; and Walid Bin Attash and Ramzi Binalshibh, two men from Yemen.

Unlike their last appearance in court in May, which was disrupted several times by the defendants, the five men sat quietly at the defense table, under the watchful eyes of military guards and several family members of the 9/11 victims, The Associated Press reported. All seemed to be cooperating with their attorneys. Mohammed read legal papers. Two others responded politely to the judge when they were asked questions, according to the AP.

All the defendants wore white robes and turbans, and spoke openly with one another throughout the course of the day.


The men, being prosecuted in a special military tribunal for war-time offenses, are charged with conspiring with al-Qaida, attacking civilians and civilian targets, murder in violation of the laws of war, destruction of property, hijacking and terrorism. All five could face the death penalty if convicted.

Associated Press

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, is seen shortly after his capture in Pakistan in this photo taken on March 1, 2003.

The families of people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks were invited to military installations in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland and New York City to watch the pretrial hearings on closed-circuit television, NBCNewYork.com reported.

Getting the terror suspects to this point has been a years-long process mired in political and legal arguments over the defendants' rights, the use of evidence that may have been derived through torture, and the proper venue for the proceedings. The actual trial is expected to be at least a year away.

The pretrial hearings this week will cover a series of motions filed by the various defense teams, dealing primarily with secrecy issues and the detainees' rights.

The most controversial issue, which was not taken up by the end of the first day, is a challenge to the government's gag order on any information gained during interrogation of the detainees. The ACLU and more than one dozen news organizations filed a motion to oppose to government's gag order. The government maintains the order is necessary to protect classified intelligence-gathering techniques.

Defendants may skip hearings
On Monday, prosecutors and lawyers spent hours arguing the most preliminary of issues, including whether the defendants have to be in court at all, with one attorney saying the hearings may dredge up bad memories of their harsh treatment in CIA detention.

Defense attorney Capt. Michael Schwartz argued that the detainees should not be forced to come to court because the process of forcibly removing them from their cells is traumatic and reminiscent of harsh interrogation techniques.

Watch the most-viewed videos on NBCNews.com

Schwartz said that if the court was considering forced cell extraction it had to talk about torture.

"No we don't," the judge said quickly.

"I think we do," Schwartz said.

"I'm telling you I don't think that's relevant in this issue. That's the end of that, move on to something else," Pohl retorted.

But Schwartz persisted, saying he needs to address the issue of torture.

"No you don't," the judge said more forcefully this time, adding that the defense does not have the opportunity to make an argument that he sees as irrelevant.

After a prolonged and heated back-and-forth, the detainees were granted the right to waive their attendence at the hearings at least until jurors are assembled for the actual trial, but they must sign a waiver each day they choose not to attend.

Toward the end of the day, the judge asked each of the five detainees a series of questions to ensure they understand their new rights to waive attendance at their sessions.

Binalshibh answered each of his questions in imperfect English, veering into a perplexing discussion about escaping from Guantanamo and alleging unfair treatment from his guards.

Stay informed with the latest headlines; sign up for our newsletter

When asked whether he understands that the trial could ultimately continue even if he is not present, Binalshibh looked perplexed, saying, "that is a very wide word, can you be concrete?"

"I'm not implying that I think you are going to escape," the judge said, adding that if that were to happen, the trial could continue without him being there.

"Escaping from custody?" Binalshibh asked.

"I'm not saying you're going to," the judge said, asking again whether he understands that the trial could continue without him. Binalshibh seemed to smile as he said, "Yes I do."

Guantamo guards make things 'difficult'
He raised concerns about the fact that guards would be sent to bring him to the hearings, though, saying, "dealing with the guard is very difficult. They didn't report everything so correctly. Problems with guards can misreporting all things."

"Some guard when you have problem with them they can make it very difficult for us," he said.

Despite President Obama's vow to shut down Guantanamo Bay, the nation's most expensive prison is undergoing some costly new updates that would allow the facility to remain open for years. NBC's Michael Isikoff reports.

When the judge recommended reporting any problems to his attorney, Binalshibh said, "Where can I call him? There is no time to contact him. Very difficult communication for us."

Mohammed answered his questions through his interpreter. He looked down and answered simply "yes" to every question, until at the end when asked whether he understands he doesn't have to attend the sessions.

"Yes, but I don't think there is any justice in this court," he said through his interpreter.

The court was in session for about five total hours, with several breaks throughout the day. It then adjourned until 9 a.m. ET. Tuesday.

Pohl was also expected to hear requests from news organizations on limiting closed courtrooms for secret sessions and be asked to decide whether the U.S. Constitution governs tribunals held at the U.S. base in Cuba.

The testy exchanges occurred during a hearing that was otherwise calm and orderly, in stark contrast to the chaotic 13-hour arraignment hearing in May, when defendants made defiant outbursts and refused to answer the judge's questions or listen through earphones to an Arabic-English translation of the proceedings. In those proceedings, one of the men was briefly restrained and two of them stood up to pray at one point.

Subsequent hearings had been pushed back for various reasons.

A hearing in July was postponed to allow the defendants to observe the holy month of Ramadan. Hearings in August were delayed when an Internet outage left the lawyers unable to access their electronic legal documents. That hearing was later canceled altogether as Tropical Storm Isaac approached. The storm caused no damage to the base.

A hearing scheduled for late September was also delayed because the work space for the defense lawyers was shut down due to a rat infestation and mold, which lawyers claimed were making them sick, Reuters reported.

Pohl ruled on Oct. 5 there would be no further postponements to the hearings.

An earlier attempt to try the five men at Guantanamo ended when the Obama administration tried to move the trials to New York City, where two of the hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center.

That was abandoned under pressure from Congress and from New Yorkers, and the charges were re-filed in Guantanamo.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

More content from NBCNews.com:

Follow US news from NBCNews.com on Twitter and Facebook