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9/11 defendant's competency is focus of Guantanamo hearings

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — Lawyers and the alleged Sept. 11 conspirators return to the war court Monday for the first time this year in a U.S. government bid to determine whether one of the accused plotters is competent to stand trial.

At the last hearings, in December, the Army judge ejected alleged 9/11 deputy Ramzi bin al Shibh four times for shouting that guards were keeping him awake at night in his cell. The prosecutor sought an evaluation on whether the 41-year-old Yemeni was competent to go to trial, stalling the proceedings.

So now, starting Monday, the hearings resume with a sealed prosecution proposal to call witnesses on the competency question that looms over the Sept. 11 terror trial of five men accused of conspiring in the hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.

Bin al Shibh allegedly aspired to become one of the 9/11 suicide hijackers. But he couldn’t obtain a U.S. visa so instead is accused of helping Khalid Sheik Mohammed organize the attacks from Hamburg, Germany.

The prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, proposes to execute the men, if convicted. He wants to start choosing a military jury in January.

But Bin al Shibh has refused to speak with court-appointed U.S. military mental health experts about his complaint that the military is causing noises and vibrations in his cell at Guantánamo’s clandestine lockup for former CIA prisoners, called Camp 7. His is a longstanding complaint, and prosecutors argue it’s baseless.

Since Bin al Shibh wouldn’t meet U.S. military mental health experts, according to his lawyers, the prosecution is seeking a judicial finding that he’s competent enough to go on trial but delusional about what’s going on in his secret prison camp.

“The government will not be presenting any witnesses who will opine on whether Mr. Bin al Shibh is presently competent to stand trial as no one has had a recent face-to-face forensic interview to make such a determination,” prosecutors wrote the judge March 27, according to a recipient of the memo.

So instead, the goal of this week’s hearing is to “establish a record that JTF-GTMO [the prison bureaucracy] is not intentionally producing noises, odors or vibrations to intentionally interfere with Mr. Bin al Shibh’s confinement.”

The request opens up the possibility of testimony at the war court about what’s going on at Camp 7, a clandestine lockup where the military segregates former CIA captives from the others in the detention center that contains 154 prisoners.

The admiral in charge of the prison camps said in an interview last month that Camp 7 suffers structural problems — cracking floors and walls, doors that don’t open and close properly. No problems, according to Rear Adm. Richard Butler, are serious enough in his opinion to jeopardize a 2009 Pentagon finding of compliance with the Geneva Conventions that govern how nations treat war prisoners.

It was unclear what other business might get done in the four-day session to set the stage for the trial by military commission. The judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, agreed to recess until June on Thursday after attorneys sought time to leave the base and celebrate the Easter holiday.

This week’s session coincides with the Jewish holiday of Passover and also, based on leaked secret U.S. documents, the 49th birthday of Mohammed, the alleged architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.

His attorneys declined to say how he would be celebrating but one noted that pious Muslims see birthdays as a reason for thoughtful reflection rather than a party.

Mohammed, who’s spent a fifth of his life in CIA or U.S. military custody, will likely be on the sidelines of this week’s hearings. The judge ruled in December that he would not hear other legal arguments until the competency issue is resolved.

Author Terry McDermott, who co-wrote a book about Mohammed, “ The Hunt for KSM,” said the birthday does mark a milestone of sorts.

It illustrates “how huge a percentage of his adult life he devoted to terrorism or the consequences of same,” he said, dating the accused mastermind’s devotion to the cause to 1989 as the Afghan jihad was ending and his brother got killed.

“That’s my best guess as to when he first began, anyhow,” said McDermott. “So that’s coming up on 25 years now.”

There are some administrative issues also on the docket for this week’s hearing, including the Army’s decision to reassign an attorney on Mohammed’s defense team to graduate school and an emergency motion by the prosecution that asks the judge to inquire how two news organizations got a copy of Mohammed’s musings that the Huffington Post called a prison-camp manifesto.

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