Seventh Guantanamo Bay judge tries to break deadlock in 13-year case against ‘9/11 Five’

The five men are accused helping hijackers conduct the 9/11 terror attacks

Alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (R) along with Ramzi bin Al Shibh (L) and Walid bin Attash (C) at a pretrial hearing at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay. AFP
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The peculiarities of the US military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay were on full display on Wednesday, when lawyers questioned the judge who is presiding over the case of the five men accused of helping orchestrate the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

Defence lawyers and prosecutors spent hours digging into US Air Force Col Matthew McCall's background, searching for threads that could potentially reveal conflicts of interests or prove him unfit to oversee an eventual trial of the “9/11 Five".

In state and federal courts in the US, lawyers are not given an opportunity to question a judge’s background.

Col McCall, 50, is the seventh judge to preside over the case, which has dragged on since charges were first filed in 2008, though he is only the fourth to actually hear any motions.

His appointment has been controversial.

He was first appointed in 2020 by then-chief trial judge Douglas Watkins, but shortly thereafter recused himself after the prosecution objected on the grounds that he had not been a judge for more than two years, the minimum requirement to preside over a military commission.

Once Col McCall had passed the two-year mark as a judge, he was reappointed and officially took on the case on August 20.

Both the defence and prosecution questioned his lack of experience as a judge and whether he had a strong command of the case.

Col McCall, who has requested everyone in court wear masks, took his off during questioning so both sides could better see his facial expressions.

When asked if he could be impartial on the case he replied “without a doubt".

At one point during proceedings, Ramzi bin Al Shibh, who is accused of running a terror cell in Hamburg, Germany, that sent several of the hijackers to the US, stood up and started praying, a sight that has become fairly common during the case's lengthy history.

The proceedings continued uninterrupted.

Defence lawyer David Bruck asked Col McCall if he was prepared for the potentially life-changing effects this case, which is likely to attract worldwide attention for months if it ever goes to trial, would have on his life.

He said he understood the case's significance.

“I plan on having almost tunnel vision while doing this job,” he told the court.

“I didn't see any red flags,” said James Connell, the lead counsel for Ammar Al Baluchi, who is accused of transferring money to the hijackers. “He seems like a person who is committed to doing the best he could and in a tough situation.”

Mr Connell said he would not object to Col McCall’s qualifications and he does not expect the legal representatives for the other accused men would do so either.

'The National's' Willy Lowry reports from Guantanamo Bay as 9/11 trial resumes

'The National's' Willy Lowry reports from Guantanamo Bay as 9/11 trial resumes
Updated: September 09, 2021, 7:11 AM