GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — The visitors getting VIP treatment from the U.S. military sat through days of legal debate so dense that even lawyers yawned and at times the terrorist mastermind in the front row of the courtroom appeared to be on the verge of falling asleep.
Still, there was something closer to relief than frustration for the guests of honor, families of people killed in the September 11 attacks who have decided that even glacially paced proceedings at Guantanamo Bay are better than none at all.
“I think everyone is glad it’s moving forward,” said Denise Dillard, whose brother, Eddie, was killed in the attacks.
“It’s going to be tough but everyone’s at it,” Dillard said Friday as a round of pretrial hearings in the September 11 war crimes case came to an end.
To Dillard, a hospital administrator from Gary, Indiana, the hours of often arcane motions hearings were welcome signs that the government is being cautious. “We don’t want anything overturned,” she said.
It was a concern shared by others in the small contingent of families chosen by lottery to come to this isolated U.S. base on the southeastern corner of Cuba to watch the week of hearings, the fifth since the five defendants were arraigned in May 2012.
“This is going to take a while,” said Stephan Gerhardt, a Washington D.C. business owner whose brother, Ralph, was killed in the World Trade Center. “We are going to be here until the end.”
The U.S. is prosecuting five prisoners, including self-styled terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, on charges that include terrorism and nearly 3,000 counts of murder for planning and aiding the attacks of September 11, 2001, in which hijackers crashed passenger jets into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. They could get the death penalty if convicted.
After years of legal and political delays, the case is deep into the pretrial stage. The prosecution and defense are litigating scores of preliminary issues that must be resolved before a trial that participants frequently call the most complex in U.S. history.
This week’s hearing featured more debate over the rules for handling classified evidence and legal mail. Defense teams say the rules are overly restrictive and make it too difficult for them to prepare cases that center around the harsh treatment — which they call torture — that the prisoners endured in CIA custody. The judge also heard arguments on a motion to dismiss some of the charges, including conspiracy and terrorism, which lawyers for the men say are not traditional war crimes that can be prosecuted by a military commission.
The judge allowed the defendants to skip parts of this week’s sessions, but the families did get their first chance to see the men accused of orchestrating the attacks, including Mohammed. At times, the man who has said he planned the attacks “from A to Z,” appeared to nearly doze as he sat in court in his camouflage vest, his flowing grey beard dyed a burnt orange.
“I was terrified thinking how I would feel looking at the detainees … knowing they were part of the reason my daughter isn’t here anymore,” said JoAnn Meehan of Toms River, New Jersey, whose 26-year-old daughter, Colleen Barkow, was killed in the World Trade Center. Seeing the defendants gave her new perspective. “When I did see them I had this empty feeling that they weren’t worth my time.”
The government has flown small contingents of the immediate family members of people killed in the attacks to each of the hearings. They are given tours of the base, though they do not see the inside of the prison, and have private meetings with officials, including the detention center commander and prosecutors. They began to meet with defense lawyers last summer as well, an experience some approached with reluctance.
“I thought ‘How could anyone defend the five guys who killed our families?’” said Francine Kaplan of Framingham, Massachusetts, whose daughter, Robin, was on one of hijacked jets. “You know what? They are really nice people. They are doing their job.”
Gerhardt said he is glad the lawyers for the men, both civilians and military, are waging an aggressive defense. “They want to do it right and we want them to do it right,” he said. “Yes they are posturing, yes they are putting out motions to get as much as they can accepted and that’s how the process works and it’s a good process so let’s let it work.”
There was a sign during this week’s hearing that yet another delay could be looming for the proceedings.
The judge, Army Col. James Pohl, warned prosecutors Friday that he might suspend further hearings if the government cannot resolve technological issues with the Pentagon computer network. Defense teams have complained that the network prevents them from doing any work involving their clients that must be kept secure. Pohl is expected to rule on that issue in September, when the court convenes for its sixth round of pretrial hearings.
Prosecutors submitted a motion to set a tentative trial date of July 2014 but the judge did not take it up this week as had been expected.