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June 5, 2008 2:20 PM

Accused 9/11 Mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Refuses Legal Representation

Posted by Daphne Eviatar

Accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed refused legal representation at his arraignment today before a Guantánamo military commission on terrorism-related charges, and stated that he will plead guilty and face execution, according to the Associated Press. Four alleged coconspirators also refused the counsel of military and civilian defense attorneys.

When asked by the judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, if he understands that he faces the death penalty, Sheik Mohammed responded, "That is what I wish. I wish to be martyred." Mohammed said he cannot accept legal representation because he only believes in sharia, or Islamic law.

ACLU president Anthony Romero said he is not surprised by this latest turn of events. The ACLU--which has worked with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to organize a group of civilian criminal defense lawyers to assist the detainees--has accused the government of encouraging the detainees to reject representation. "It hardly comes as any surprise that after holding individuals in solitary confinement for five years and subjecting them to torture, these detainees would reject the legal system and offers to represent them," Romero said in a statement released today.

Romero added, "It is highly suspect that the government changed its protocols for the interaction of the defendants on the very day they were arraigned. For several years they've been held separately without communication and yet, on the day of their arraignment, they were allowed to interact with the obvious goal of allowing them to present a unified rejection of legal representation."

Although civilian attorneys David Nevin and Scott McKay met with Mohammed earlier this week and volunteered to present his defense, "ethically they can play no role that the defendant does not want them to," says Jack King, spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Counsel. "The court can’t force counsel on the defendant."

Before the detainees will be allowed to represent themselves, however, the judge must determine that they are competent to do so.  "Any ordinary competent adult is generally competent to represent themselves, they don’t need any specialized knowledge," says Andrea Prasow, an attorney in the Office of Military Commission and assistant detailed counsel for detainee Salim Hamdan. Mohammad's insistence that he wants to be killed and become a martyr do not necessarily mean he's not competent."There’s a history of capital defendants—death volunteers, they're called—who will say they want to plead guilty," explains Prasow. "It's not that unusual. Then again, if someone subscribes to a certain ideology that makes him want to be martyred, does that make him crazy? Those issues will play themselves out."

Even if the judge lets the detainees represent themselves, he will most likely appoint military counsel to serve as stand-by counsel, says Prasow, to represent a detainee if he is disruptive and has to be removed from the courtroom. A date for a competency hearing has not yet been set.

Mohammed and the other four detainees were charged by the military commission with war crimes, including the murder of almost 3,000 people, conspiracy, attacking civilians, and conducting terrorism. Although their trial is scheduled to begin in September, an expected Supreme Court ruling in another case involving the rights of Guantánamo Bay detainees could delay or even stop the military commission proceedings.

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