Source: New York Times


April 6, 2006

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba, April 6 — A 27-year-old Ethiopian accused of plotting terror attacks with the American prisoner Jose Padilla used his first appearance before a military tribunal here to stage an elaborate show of contempt for the special court in which he is to be tried.

The defendant, Binyam A. Mohamed, marched into a military courtroom wearing a long kameeze-style tunic died bright orange, the color of jumpsuits assigned to the least-compliant prisoners here. His performance — angry, articulate and sometimes comical — generally matched his attire.

"This is not a commission," he said, holding up a small sign. "This is a con mission. This is a mission to con the world."

The hand-lettered sign, apparently misspelled, read "Conn mission."

Based on the single conspiracy charge against him, Mr. Mohamed could be one of the most significant suspects being held at Guantánamo. The military has charged that he and Mr. Padilla conspired with Qaeda leaders to detonate a radioactive "dirty" bomb and to carry out other terror attacks in the United States.

Yet the case also starkly illustrates the differences between the evolving rules of the military commissions set up by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11 attacks and the United States federal courts.

Last November, the government moved Mr. Padilla, an American, from military custody. But it did not charge him with the most serious accusations administration officials had made against him.

In interviews, administration officials said they had concluded that it would be impossible to demonstrate Mr. Padilla's involvement in the dirty-bomb plot without exposing the harsh methods used to elicit the information from captive Qaeda leaders. Instead, Mr. Padilla was charged in Federal District Court in Miami with lesser crimes of supporting terrorism.

But the charges against Mr. Mohamed closely mirror the accusations that senior American officials had made against Mr. Padilla. Mr. Mohamed's case is also expected to raise many of the difficult issues of classified evidence and coercive interrogations that the military commissions were originally intended to handle.

According to his military charge sheet, Mr. Mohamed, an electrical engineer and a Muslim convert who had lived mostly in Britain since his teenage years, traveled to Afghanistan in May 2001 and was trained by Qaeda operatives in weapons, explosives, urban warfare and remote-control detonation. After meeting up with Mr. Padilla and others in Pakistan, the military contends, the two men were instructed in how to make a dirty bomb, as well as engage in other plots like "blowing up gas tankers and spraying people with cyanide in nightclubs."

Mr. Mohamed — whose lawyers say he never even met Mr. Padilla and could not have communicated with Qaeda leaders because he does not speak Arabic — has told a different story.

According to his account, he was an innocent if adventurous man who was arrested in Pakistan, turned over to C.I.A. operatives and sent to Morocco, where he was jailed for 18 months and tortured. He says he was later taken to a "dark prison" in Afghanistan. He was flown to Guantánamo from Afghanistan in September 2004.

"He has been locked up for a long time," one of Mr. Mohamed's civilian lawyers, Clive Stafford Smith, said Thursday. "He has a lot to say."

And for much of the morning, the military officer presiding over the case, Col. Ralph Kohlmann, gave Mr. Mohamed some leeway to have his say. Complaining that he had been misidentified by the commission as "Binyam Muhammad," Mr. Mohamed said, "You've got the wrong man here."

"I don't understand what kind of system — after four years of renditions and torture — gets the wrong man," he said. "I don't know if Congress gave you the right to change names; they gave you the right to change laws."

When Colonel Kohlmann insisted that he had to call the defendant something, Mr. Mohamed suggested "Count Dracula."

Initially, Mr. Mohamed sought to represent himself, saying that he could not trust his military lawyer, Maj. Yvonne Bradley, because she was "under orders to be my enemy," and that he would use Mr. Stafford Smith and an American law professor, Joseph Margulies, as his advisers.

Major Bradley went along. For the moment, she said, she faced a conflict of interest because she shared an office with other military defense lawyers whose clients have in some cases made statements against one another. And even when Colonel Kohlmann warned her of dire consequences if she did not follow an order to represent Mr. Mohamed vigorously, she repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering his questions about a few pretrial motions.

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