By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - The last time Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was in the top-security courtroom at the Guantanamo Bay naval base more than three years ago, the admitted architect of the September 11 attacks was trying to confess, plead guilty and achieve martyrdom.
Before the judge could determine whether the murky rules allowed defendants to plead guilty and be executed, something that is not allowed in regular U.S. courts-martial, President Barack Obama pulled the plug on the Guantanamo tribunals.
If Mohammed is still interested in pleading guilty, he and four co-defendants will get their chance on Saturday when they are arraigned anew on charges that carry the death penalty.
They face seven charges stemming from the 2001 hijacked plane attacks that killed 2,976 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania and propelled the United States into a deadly, costly and ongoing global war against al Qaeda and its supporters.
"The stakes are as high as they can be in any prosecution. These are the prosecutions of the century," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union and a longtime observer and critic of the tribunals.
Since the five defendants last appeared in court in December 2008, the law authorizing the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals has been overhauled and the ambiguity over guilty pleas was resolved.
"The changes to the statutes allow the military judge to accept pleas of guilty in a capital case and make findings accordingly," said a Pentagon spokesman, Army Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale. "If the members (jurors) vote unanimously on a sentence, then an accused who has pleaded guilty to a capital charge could be sentenced to death."
'TERRORISTS TO THE BONE'
Mohammed and the other defendants, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa al Hawsawi, are charged with conspiring with al Qaeda, attacking civilians and civilian targets, murder in violation of the laws of war, destruction of property, hijacking and terrorism.
They said in a 2009 letter to the previous tribunal judge that they were "terrorists to the bone" who considered the accusations against them "badges of honor" that they carried with pride.
Mohammed said in one hearing that "I am looking to be martyred." In November 2008, the defendants sent a note to the judge saying all five were ready to "announce our confessions" and plead guilty.
The Obama administration halted that prosecution and tried to move the case into a New York federal court just blocks from where the Twin Towers fell during the attack, but caved to political pressure and moved the case back into the Guantanamo tribunals.
Formally known as military commissions, the tribunals have been criticized as a second-class system, rigged to convict, since they were first authorized in 2001.
The chief prosecutor, Army Brigadier General Mark Martins, acknowledged in a speech at Harvard University last month that earlier versions were flawed.
"That is not where we are any more," he said. "While appreciating the criticisms and concerns, we believe that these reformed military commissions are fair and that they serve an important role in the armed conflict against al Qaeda and associated forces."
On Saturday at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba, the defendants will be escorted into the cavernous courtroom by Navy guards in camouflage uniforms, and seated with their lawyers and translators at rows of reddish-hued fake mahogany tables.
Most eyes will be on Mohammed, who in earlier hearings sang Koranic verses in Arabic, lectured the judge and insisted that the courtroom sketch artist redraw him with a slimmer nose. Described by those how have dealt with him as egotistical and manipulative, he seemed to relish being the center of attention.
'JIHADI POSTER BOYS'
The judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, will ask him and his colleagues whether they want to plead not guilty and be tried by a panel of at least 12 U.S. military officers, plead guilty and proceed to sentencing by such a panel, or defer entering a plea until later.
The panel would not be chosen until after all the legal and evidentiary challenges are resolved, which could require several hearings over many months or even years.
Defense lawyers have already asked that the charges be dropped because of what they called critical omissions during the process used to refer the case to trial as a death penalty case. They said they did not get translators and experts in a timely manner because of long delays in obtaining security clearances, and that they still had not received interrogation and medical records they requested.
"The odds continue to be silently and deliberately stacked against a fair process," said Navy Commander Walter Ruiz, an attorney appointed to represent Hawsawi.
He said the case was hampered by the "gaping black hole of information" about what happened to his client after his arrest in 2003.
All five defendants were held for more than three years in secret CIA prisons before being sent to Guantanamo in 2006, and all have said they were tortured there. The CIA said Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times.
A sixth defendant, Mohammed al Qahtani, was dropped from the case because the Pentagon appointee previously overseeing the tribunals found that he was tortured during Guantanamo interrogations that included long periods of isolation and exposure to cold, sleep deprivation, nudity and sexual humiliation.
At Saturday's hearing, the judge will ask the defendants whether they want to keep their military and civilian lawyers or act as their own attorneys. In the earlier hearings, the defendants said they did not trust any U.S. lawyers, and the judge ruled that Mohammed, bin Attash and Aziz Ali could represent themselves.
He was still mulling whether Binalshibh, who was receiving psychotropic medication for an undisclosed illness, and Hawsawi were mentally competent to act as their own attorneys when the case was halted.
If the defendants plead guilty this time around or are ultimately convicted at trial, it would likely be many more years before appeals are completed and the sentences are carried out. The secretary of defense would decide how they would be executed.
Critics have suggested that U.S. interests would be better served if the defendants were sentenced to prison for life with no chance of parole.
"It would be a mistake to execute them and make them martyrs for the al Qaeda extremists worldwide," Romero said. "How is converting these five defendants into jihadi poster boys a furtherance of American foreign policy in the Muslim world when modern Western democracies reject the death penalty?"
(Reporting By Jane Sutton; Editing by Tom Brown and Eric Beech)