GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- In a dramatic turn that silenced defense lawyers, a Yemeni poet accused of crafting terrorist propaganda argued yesterday to represent himself before a US military commission, and then admitted to being a member of Al Qaeda.
Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul, 36, of Yemen, was adamant that he did not accept representation by his military lawyers when he went before the five-member panel to face charges of conspiracy to commit war crimes. If denied that request, he said, he wanted a Yemeni attorney.
The procedural rules for the military commissions set up to try Guantanamo detainees say defense attorneys must be US citizens and lawyers, and Bahlul's arraignment was recessed until a higher authority can rule on his request. During a discussion of the request, the presiding officer, Army Colonel Peter E. Brownback, explained that if he chose to represent himself he would not be allowed to see evidence that was classified.
"I don't think it is fair the evidence would not be presented, and the accused cannot defend himself without seeing such evidence," Bahlul said, speaking through an Arabic translator.
Then he declared that "I am an Al Qaeda member," and started to speak about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States before he was cut off by Brownback. Brownback ordered that the comments be disregarded, but it was unclear whether the information could be used against him during the trial.
The preliminary hearing -- the first step in military commissions, or trials -- was muddled by inaccurate translations. Several of Bahlul's words were rendered incorrectly, said Arabic-speaking journalists in attendance and a translator for another charged Guantanamo prisoner.