By Jane Sutton
GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Star defendant Khalid Sheikh Mohammed appeared to doze off momentarily on Wednesday during an arcane courtroom debate over whether the charges against him and four alleged co-conspirators in the September 11 plot were properly sent to trial as a death penalty case.
The issue is literally a matter of life and death, but the legal debate has inched along over several pretrial hearings at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, rendering it torpid.
Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the hijacked plane plot, was awakened before 5 a.m. for the trip from his cell to the top-security courtroom. Wearing a camouflage jacket over his white tunic, he rested his head in his hands at one point during the hearing and appeared to nod off for a moment, then seemed to jolt awake and resumed reading along with the legal documents.
Defense attorneys asked the judge in April 2012 to drop the charges, arguing that the Pentagon appointee overseeing the tribunal had rushed to refer it for trial as a death penalty case without giving them a chance to present potentially mitigating evidence. That mainly involves allegations that the defendants were tortured during CIA interrogations.
Eighteen months later, the request is not yet ripe for a ruling. The issue before the judge on Wednesday was whether to compel testimony from two legal advisers involved in the decision.
Navy Commander Walter Ruiz, who represents Saudi defendant Mustafa al Hawsawi, said the appointee who signed off on the death penalty decision, retired Vice Admiral Bruce MacDonald, was an "absentee landlord" who spent most of his time at his home in the Seattle area and left his Washington D.C. office in the hands of the two legal advisers.
The defendants have been in U.S. custody since 2002 and 2003 and face charges that include conspiring with al Qaeda, terrorism and murder. They are accused of training and funding the hijackers who rammed four commercial jets into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania in 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people.
Prosecutors hope to start the trial in September 2014. Defense lawyers say it could take them years longer to prepare. As the hearings drag on, prosecutors regularly accuse the defense of stalling, and the defense lawyers accuse the prosecutors of ignoring requests for evidence.
The judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, seemed exasperated on Wednesday when a prosecutor said he actually had some documents that Ruiz sought to obtain but had not turned them over because he considered them irrelevant.
"Why don't you just hand them to Commander Ruiz? Why are wasting time on this?" the judge said. "That may be a better use of our time than sitting here discussing this for 15 or 20 minutes."
(Reporting by Jane Sutton; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)