Judge Delays 9/11 Hearings While Awaiting Defendant’s Competency Exam

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The military judge in the Sept. 11 case postponed this summer’s hearings on Monday, citing a pending evaluation of whether one of the five men accused of conspiring in the attacks is competent to face trial.

The judge, Col. Matthew N. McCall, said in a four-page order that “it would be prudent” to delay case testimony and legal arguments until September because a panel of military mental health experts was investigating the mental competency of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who is accused of being a deputy in the plot.

The panel has until July 14 to report its findings. Mr. bin al-Shibh’s lawyers had argued that the defendant “cannot participate in pretrial motions hearings while the issue of his mental capacity to stand trial remains unresolved.”

The first hearings in more than a year had been scheduled for July 3-21. Colonel McCall said he would still travel to Guantánamo Bay for the week of July 10 for private meetings with another man accused in the plot, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, and his lawyers. The subject of the talks is not known, but court filings have shown turmoil within Mr. Hawsawi’s legal team.

Why It Matters: The case has been on hold for more than a year.

Under the current court schedule, the men accused of plotting the attacks will not return to the war court until Sept. 18 — after the 22nd anniversary of the attacks by 19 men who hijacked four passenger planes on Sept. 11, 2001, and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people were killed.

If the panel concludes that Mr. bin al-Shibh is unfit for trial, one focus of the fall hearings could be whether prosecutors want to call experts to challenge that finding. Prosecutors have argued in the past that all five men should be tried at the same time to spare the families of the victims from multiple trials.

Background: Prosecutors want White House support for a plea deal.

Prosecutors initiated plea negotiations in March 2022 and have for more than a year sought an answer from the Biden administration on whether it supports certain assurances sought by the accused mastermind of the attack, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and his four co-defendants. Under the proposal, the men would plead guilty to their roles in the attack in exchange for a maximum sentence of life in prison, rather than the possibility of the death penalty.

The defendants have asked not to be placed in solitary confinement. They are also requesting the establishment of a civilian care program to treat the effects of their torture during the years they were held in C.I.A. detention before their transfer to Guantánamo Bay in September 2006.

What’s Next: More hearings, possibly on a question of one defendant’s sanity.

Prosecutors want to resume testimony from federal agents on their interrogations of the five men at Guantánamo Bay in 2007. Defense lawyers have been arguing in years of pretrial hearings that those interrogations are tainted by the torture of the defendants in the C.I.A.’s overseas prison network, and the F.B.I.’s collaboration with C.I.A. interrogators in the prisons, known as black sites.

If the panel of experts finds that Mr. bin al-Shibh is not sane enough for trial, the judge could also hold a fact-finding hearing on what measures the military might undertake at Guantánamo Bay to treat him. Camp 5, where the defendants are held, has a second-floor psychiatric ward, known as a behavioral health unit, with a padded cell.

Carol Rosenberg has been covering the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, including detention operations and military commissions, since the first prisoners were brought there from Afghanistan in January 2002. She worked as a metro, national and foreign correspondent with a focus on coverage of conflict in the Middle East for The Miami Herald from 1990 to 2019.  @carolrosenberg Facebook

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