This grim anniversary has meant renewed focus on the five suspects in detention accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
After an 18-month hiatus in pre-trial hearings caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the men, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, appeared in court in Guantanamo Bay this week.
A small number of relatives of victims of the attacks, members of non-profit organisations, and a handful of journalists have gathered behind the glass in the viewing gallery to observe the proceedings.
Guantánamo Bay already feels cut off from the rest of the world, and given the gravity of this case and the gravity of the heinous crimes under consideration, the courtroom here feels even more strange.
“Walking into the courtroom for the first time was extremely emotional for me,” says Dr. Elizabeth Berry, whose younger brother, Billy Burke, was a firefighter in the North Tower when it collapsed.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect because you see things in the newspapers, portrayals of how people look that aren’t always accurate when you see them in court. It was both moving and difficult “she claims.
Dr. Berry has attended many of the 42 pre-trial hearings in this case at Guantanamo Bay, and she says she wanted to be here for the 20th anniversary of the attacks so she could feel like she was supporting the team fighting for justice for her brother and nearly 3000 others.
“I felt there was no better place to honour my brother than here with other family members and with this, the prosecution team,” she says.
A trial like no other
Throughout the sessions, most in the gallery found it difficult to stop glancing, sometimes staring, at the defendants.
The first morning, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a diminutive man with a henna-dyed orange beard, bounded into the courtroom and took his seat beside his legal team.
Throughout the proceedings, he and the four other defendants talked, either to their legal teams or to each other.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would frequently turn around for long periods of time, draping an arm over the back of his chair and chatting with Walid Bin Attash, the defendant sitting directly behind him; the man thought to have conceived of the 9/11 attacks and oversaw their planning, in animated discussion with one accused of training two of the hijackers.
Each of the five defendants had a large plastic tub filled with papers and files at their feet, which they frequently delved into.
“They’ve got everything in there,” says Alka Pradhan, a lawyer for Ammar al Baluchi, who is accused of providing logistical support to the 9/11 hijackers, including money transfers.
“They’ve got legal motions they’d like to discuss with us. They have copies of printouts from advocacy websites. Ammar, for example, will frequently request that we print out the most recent material from his ongoing campaign with Amnesty International so that he can discuss it “Ms Pradhan emphasises how invested all five defendants are in the outcome of their legal cases.
It is striking that many of the women who work on the defence teams of 9/11 suspects, such as Alka Pradhan, wear the hijab in court in front of their clients. Some even wear an abaya, which they remove during sessions where the defendants are not present.
“I do it in court because several of the guys were tortured specifically by females in very specific ways, intentional sexual humiliation by women,” Ms Pradhan explains.
“When you put on the hijab, you can tell a difference in how they talk to you. It’s not that they won’t talk to me if I wear a hijab, and they’ve never said you have to wear one, but there is a difference in how they interact with me “she claims.
‘I’m glad they’re so well taken care of’
The 9/11 suspects are not shackled in court, are not required to wear masks like everyone else, and their legal teams are permitted to bring them clothing deemed “culturally appropriate” and even paramilitary-style clothing.
This week, for Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the man believed to have organised one cell of the 9/11 attackers, that included a camouflage jacket similar to those worn by Osama Bin Laden and his fellow defendants, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in previous hearings.
“I’m glad they’re so well taken care of,” Elizabeth Berry says of the men accused of playing a role in her brother’s death, though the pain she feels seeing the defendants is palpable.
“I believe we take very good care of these guys, and it is obvious that they receive better healthcare than I do. But it’s all part of the process, part of accepting that this is what needs to happen in order for the situation to be resolved “Dr. Berry says
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Resolution appears to be a long way off. After all, a date for the men’s trial has yet to be set.
We heard defence teams this week question the very foundation of the process here, given that the 9/11 suspects will be tried in military commissions rather than civilian courts, implying that they cannot be accused of “war crimes” because there was no war, and thus a military commission is not appropriate.
The question of torture
Torture, and the US government’s secrecy about its use, has also cast a long shadow over proceedings, with arguments about what evidence is admissible given what the defendants were subjected to at Guantanamo Bay and other so-called “Black sites.”
“There is no way to have a fair trial at this point if we continue this charade,” says Alka Pradhan, Ammar al Baluchi’s lawyer.
“We have hundreds of motions still pending because the government has repeatedly stated that they will not provide us with basic information about where the guys were held, who talked to them, what questions were asked of them, and in what manner,” she says.
For the families of the victims of the attacks, the fact that progress has been so slow 20 years after the attacks is exasperating.
“The terrorists are on trial, not the United States,” Elizabeth Berry says at the end of the week’s final pre-trial session.
“I get frustrated, especially when I hear that we’ve lost family members who we’ve never seen or had resolution to this, but I’m optimistic because we’ve started over and we’re moving forward.”