Lawyers allowed to question Khalid Sheik Mohammed
NEW YORK (AP) — Self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed can answer hundreds of written questions from lawyers preparing to defend Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law at a New York City terrorism trial next month, a judge said Wednesday.
The government agreed to let lawyers for defendant Sulaiman Abu Ghaith submit the questions to Mohammed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he is held at a detention facility, and U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan gave his approval in a written order.
At a hearing later in the day, though, the judge said he was “deeply skeptical” that defense lawyers had adequately explained why it was necessary to question Mohammed on the eve of a trial that was scheduled to start Monday. The judge postponed the start of the trial until March 3 for Abu Ghaith, who is charged with conspiring to kill Americans in his role as al-Qaida’s spokesman after 9/11. He has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
His attorney, Stanley Cohen, has said the interview will determine whether Mohammed would be an appropriate witness for his client’s trial.
In court papers, defense lawyers had told the judge that Mohammed was “the most qualified person alive” to tell them whether Abu Ghaith knew of any al-Qaida terrorist operations or was part of any conspiracy to kill Americans.
The lawyers said interviewing Mohammed might be useful in responding to government claims that Abu Ghaith had prior knowledge of the failed shoe-bomb airline attack by Richard Reid in December 2001 and another plot to down a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden in shoes.
“Because of his intimate and unsurpassed knowledge of the shoe bomb attacks as acknowledged by the government, Mr. Mohammed’s information will be uniquely and unquestionably authoritative on the subject of who was involved in, or even had knowledge of, the shoe bomb attacks,” the lawyers said. “The defense anticipates that Mr. Mohammed’s information will be favorable to Mr. Abu Ghaith.”
The list of questions will likely be the most extensive that Mohammed has answered for lawyers preparing for a trial that is not his own. Cohen resorted to written questions after saying the government was too restrictive in its demands for an in-person interview.
In approving the process for Mohammed to answer written questions, the judge said the deal between prosecutors and the defense had probably gone far beyond what he would have allowed had the decision been left up to him.
“I am deeply skeptical that there was any right of access to Khalid Sheik Mohammed in the first place on the showing that the defense made,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan said the delay by the defense in making a request that could have been made months ago was likely to be a problem for the defense “if push comes to shove on this issue.”
Mohammed is awaiting trial with four others in a military tribunal that has gotten bogged down in pretrial issues. The government has asked for a trial late this year, though it’s likely to be after that.