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Alleged al Qaeda video-maker boycotts own trial

Miami Herald
by Carol Rosenberg
October 27, 2008

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- The military seated a nine-officer jury Monday and opened the no-contest war crimes trial of an alleged al Qaeda propagandist accused of creating recruiting videos for Osama bin Laden.

In a surprise, six of the jurors including the foreman had previously deliberated the sentence of another military commissions convict, Australian David Hicks. Hicks is the former Kangaroo skinner turned al Qaeda foot soldier who pleaded guilty to a terror charge in exchange for speedy release.

This time, the jury will have more work. On Tuesday, the Pentagon prosecutor outlines his case and then starts calling witnesses in the estimated week-long trial of Ali Hamza al Bahlul, about 40, of Yemen.

Bahlul allegedly produced an Internet-based video that glorified the October 2000 suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 American sailors. The video splices news footage of the crippled warship with bin Laden's calls to holy war, or jihad -- and mixes in a splash of special effects.

Bahlul is also accused of working as bin Laden's media secretary and sometime bodyguard in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He also allegedly videotaped two of the 9/11 hijackers' 'martyrs' wills.''

Bahlul, who faces a maximum of life in prison, sat mute at the defense table in a tan prison camp uniform under a self-styled boycott of the proceedings.

He has forbidden his Pentagon-paid defense attorney to call a witness, ask a question or make an argument on his behalf.

The judge, Air Force Col. Ronald Gregory, told the jury of U.S. military colonels and Navy captains that the burden is entirely on the prosecution to prove guilt. As in all trials, he said, the accused need not offer a defense.

The strategy may prove a challenge to the typically talkative Bahlul. Across years of pre-trial hearings, he has delivered hour-long monologues in which he declared his devotion to bin Laden and rejection of the U.S. military's authority to judge him.

''I will never deny any actions I did alongside bin Laden fighting you and your allies, the Jews,'' Bahlul said at his May arraignment. ``We will continue our jihad and nothing will stop us.''

Gregory ruled before the jury was selected that Bahlul's boasts in the war-court chamber would be excluded from the trial.

This terror trial follows by two months the conviction of bin Laden's $200-a-month driver, in which a team of lawyers offered a spirited defense before a different panel of military officers. That jury ordered Salim Hamdan to serve the rest of the year in prison, a sentence the Pentagon is appealing.

This time there will be no defense.

''It goes against all of my training and instincts,'' said Air Force Reserve Maj. David Frakt, Bahlul's Pentagon-appointed attorney.

Frakt, a law professor in civilian life, said he obtained an opinion from his New Jersey Bar that permits him to follow his client's wishes.

Monday, he shook his head, indicating no, each time the judge called on him.

''Mr. al Bahlul says we are spectators at a soap opera,'' he later said, explaining the Yemeni's reason for the boycott. He rejects the military commissions, he said, does not believe his activities were war crimes and respects only Islamic law.

All the jurors' names were shielded from the public by court order. They included three Army colonels, three Navy captains, two Air Force colonels and a Marine colonel with pilot's wings plainly visible on his uniform.

The foreman, an Asian-American Army colonel, also served as foreman at the Hicks sentencing in March 2007.

A representative of the clerk of court's office, who was brought to answer reporters questions on condition she not be identified, said the war court has four rotating panels.

They were compiled from a pool of fewer than 100 pre-approved U.S. military officers from all four services -- and will be repeatedly called back to Guantánamo for the terror trials. With predictions that the Pentagon might prosecute up to 80 of the 255 detainees here, that means the same jurors might hear up to 20 cases -- like a grand jury in civilian life.

The Hicks jury sentenced the Australian to eight years -- the maximum sentence sought by the Pentagon prosecutors.

What they didn't know at the time was this: A Pentagon appointee had cut a deal with Hicks and the government of Australia to have him serve only the rest of 2007, most in his native Adelaide, and be set free.

Hicks was home by New Year's Eve 2008, seven years short of the jury's sentence.

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