GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - Khalid Sheikh Mohammed fingered his long, henna-dyed beard and stared down in silence Saturday, pointedly ignoring a military commissions judge asking whether the self-described architect of the Sept. 11 attacks understood what was being said and whether he was willing to be represented by his defense lawyers.
Minutes later, Ramzi Binalshibh, another of the five detainees arraigned Saturday as accused conspirators in the attacks, stood, knelt and started praying.
Later, he shouted at the judge that he should address their complaints about prison conditions, because “Maybe you are not going to see me again. Maybe they are going to kill us and say that we have committed suicide.’’
A third detainee, Walid bin Attash, was wheeled into the courtroom at the US Navy base in Guantanamo Bay tied to a chair after apparently refusing to walk in voluntarily.
Amid disruptions both passive and aggressive, the government’s attempt to restart its efforts to prosecute the five defendants in the long-delayed Sept. 11 case got off to a slow and rocky start in a trial that could ultimately result in their execution.
After hours of jostling over procedural issues, all five defendants deferred entering a plea. The trial is not likely to start for at least a year.
The defendants’ behavior outraged 9/11 family members watching on closed-circuit video feeds at several military bases in the United States, including Fort Devens in Massachusetts.
The arraignment hearing had been delayed by the Obama administration’s efforts to transfer the case to a federal court in Lower Manhattan, a short distance from the World Trade Center site. It scrapped that plan after New York officials, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, demanded that the trial be moved.
As defense lawyers repeatedly tried to change the subject to security restrictions they say have hampered their ability to do their jobs, the judge, Army Colonel James L. Pohl, struggled to stick to a military commissions script that had been rewritten the day before - and so was not yet translated into Arabic.
The judge, however, was determined to keep the case on track. When a lawyer for Mohammed, David Nevin, explained that his client had decided not to respond to the judge’s questions about his assigned defense lawyers in order to protest what he saw as an unfair process, Pohl replied that he would assume that he had no objections to being represented by them.
“He has that choice,’’ Pohl said of Mohammed’s silence. “But he does not have a choice that would frustrate this commission going forward.’’
The arraignment was the first time since 2008 that the five high-profile Al Qaeda detainees had been seen in public. They wore loose, light-colored garb; their lawyers complained that they had brought other clothes to wear, but that prison officials refused to allow them to wear it.
Four walked into the courtroom without shackles but surrounded by three large guards who stood between them when the court was not in session. With bin Attash initially restrained, guards put glasses on his face and attached his prosthetic leg.
Pohl said he would have the restraints taken off if bin Attash would pledge not to disrupt the court, but bin Attash refused to answer him. Eventually, the restraints were removed after the judge accepted a promise relayed through bin Attash’s lawyer.
The detainees refused to wear headphones so they could hear a simultaneous Arabic translation. To make sure they knew what was being asked, the judge directed translators to repeat each phrase in Arabic over the courtroom loudspeaker, slowing the process and sometimes causing a confusing jumble.
The arraignment was the latest chapter in a meandering saga for the detainees, who were captured and held for years in secret overseas prisons by the CIA and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques. In 2008, they were charged before a tribunal and seen for the first time; Mohammed’s beard then was gray, and his behavior during pretrial motions was marked by frequent outbursts, not silence.
The high-security courtroom at this naval base was sealed; anything the detainees say is considered presumptively classified, and at one point censors cut off an audio feed when a defense lawyer said his client had been tortured, but later comments about torture were not.
Several family members of the nearly 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11 watched the proceedings behind soundproof glass.