Five men charged with plotting the Sept. 11 attacks told a military judge Monday that they want to immediately confess at their war-crimes tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, setting up likely guilty pleas and their possible executions.
The five said they decided to abandon all efforts to defend themselves against the capital charges on Nov. 4, the day Barack Obama was elected to the White House. It was as if they wanted to rush toward convictions before Obama — who has vowed to end the war-crimes trials and close Guantanamo — takes office.
Abruptly reversing course on previous attempts to defend themselves in the death-penalty case, the five announced they wanted to drop all motions presented on their behalf. The judge said competency hearings were pending for two of the detainees, precluding them from immediately filing pleas.
In a letter the judge read aloud in court, the five defendants said they "request an immediate hearing session to announce our confessions."
The letter implies they want to plead guilty, but does not specify whether they will admit to any specific charges.
The judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley, asked Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-defendants if they were prepared to enter a plea. So far, Mohammed and three others said they agreed with the letter; the fifth remained to be questioned by the judge.
Mohammed, who has already told interrogators he was the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, also told the judge Monday that he had no faith in him, his Pentagon-appointed lawyers or President George W. Bush.
Sporting a chest-length gray beard, Mohammed said in English: "I don't trust you."
The pretrial hearings this week could be the last court appearance for the high-profile detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The first U.S. war-crimes trials since World War II are teetering on the edge of extinction. Obama opposes the military commissions — as the Guantanamo trials are called — and has pledged to close the detention center holding some 250 men soon after taking office next month.
Nine relatives of victims of the 2001 al-Qaida attacks were on hand to observe the hearings at this Navy base in southeastern Cuba, but were not visible in video images relayed to a press room nearby. Five were chosen by military lottery and they brought four other relatives with them.
Henley was assigned to the case after the previous judge resigned for undisclosed reasons in November. The defendants, who are representing themselves, were also expected to question Henley about whether any conflicts would prevent him from impartially overseeing the death-penalty case.
No trial date has been set, and it is all but certain none will begin before Obama takes office on Jan. 20. Still, the U.S. military is pressing forward with the case until it receives orders to the contrary.
"We serve the sitting president and will continue to do so until President-elect Obama takes office," said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.
Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch, who is also an observer at this week's hearings, urged Obama to try terror suspects in federal court "where attention will focus on the defendants' alleged crimes rather than the unfairness of the commissions."
The military commissions have netted three convictions, but have been widely criticized for allowing statements obtained through harsh interrogations and hearsay to be admitted as evidence.
The victims' family members were expected to watch from a gallery at the rear of the cavernous, high-security courtroom and will not be allowed to address the defendants.
Maureen Santora, whose firefighter son Christopher was killed at the World Trade Center, says she wants to lock eyes with those accused of killing her son and 2,972 others in the bloodiest terrorist attacks ever on U.S. soil.
Relatives of about 30 more victims, mainly firefighters, have given Santora memorial cards that she planned to bring into court "to know their spirit is with us."