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9-11 Detainees Hold Off on Guilty Pleas

As Spencer just noted, it’s yet another day of strange and tumultuous proceedings, the five detainees charged with planning the 9/11 attacks withdrew their initial attempt to plead guilty before the Guantanamo military commission. Although all five detainees this morning sent a letter to the judge indicating they wanted to plead guilty, later in the day, according to the ACLU, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and two other detainees charged with crimes related to the 9/11 attacks said they would postpone entering pleas until the competency of two additional co-defendants is determined.

It’s also unclear whether the military judge in the case is empowered under the Military Commissions Act to accept guilty pleas, and to impose the death penalty, which the government is seeking, or whether a military jury must make those decisions.

Organizations such as the ACLU and Human Rights Watch have been saying the military commissions proceedings are a sham and that the defendants should all be tried in a federal court instead. President-elect Barack Obama has also indicated that he intends to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, where the five men are being held, and to shut down the military commission system. Today’s guilty pleas suggest that at least some of the defendants want nothing to do with an American system of justice, however — whether by military commission or in federal court.

“We don’t want to waste our time with motions,” Mohammed said, according to the Times. “All of you are paid by the U.S. government. I’m not trusting any American.”

The five men sent their statement to the judge just as the court was scheduled to hear a series of defense motions challenging the military charges against the defendants.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has said repeatedly that he wants to die and to be martyred. He’s also confessed to more than 35 terrorist attacks around the world. He and two of his co-defendants have been deemed competent to represent themselves, although they all have stand-by defense counsel to assist them.

Some advocates have expressed concern that KSM may be pressuring the other defendants to plead guilty along with him, and to all martyr themselves together.

Joanne Mariner, Terrorism and Counterterrorism program director at Human Rights Watch, noted that KSM’s adamant position in this case underscores why a credible justice system for suspected terrorists is important.

“Whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammed wants to be a martyr or not, the US justice system should not allow him to be,” she told me today. “It would degrade the justice system. We have an interest in maintaining the credibility of the justice system.”

According to William Glaberson of the New York Times, Judge Steven Henley, an Army colonel, plans to probe the vountariness of the pleas and make factual findings before he accepts them.

“We think it’s important for the judge not to rush to accept this,” said Mariner. “In our view there should be a psychiatric examination of the defendants. Given the years in CIA custody and the abuses they endured, there’s a strong possibility of post-traumatic stress. Even if the judge accepts the guilty plea, he should have hearings and time to decide on the penalty. Whether or not the defendants want that.”

Although the judge has indicated that he will hold hearings, it’s not clear how far he’ll get in this case. When Barack Obama assumes control of the Justice and Defense Departments in January, he is expected to disband the military commissions. What he will replace them with, however, remains a subject of much speculation and debate.

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