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Guantanamo defendant demands to represent himself

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE – A suspected bodyguard for Osama bin Laden demanded to represent himself at the Guantanamo war crimes tribunal, saying no U.S. lawyer can defend him fairly because he is a member of al Qaeda.

«I had no direct relationship with the events of September 11,» Yemeni defendant Ali Hamza al Bahlul told a pretrial hearing at the tribunal.

But «because I am from al Qaeda and my counsel is an American, therefore the psychological war or conflict is ongoing … it becomes impossible for the counsel to put aside his true feelings,» he said through an Arabic-English interpreter.

Bahlul was refused permission to act as his own attorney but insists the psychological scars of September 11 would make it impossible for any U.S. military or civilian lawyer to represent him fairly.

«For me, impartiality equates being non-American,» Bahlul said.

The tribunals are the first held by the United States since World War Two and convened in August 2004, more than 2 1/2 years after the prison camp opened at the remote base in Cuba.

Only 10 of the nearly 500 Guantanamo prisoners have been charged with crimes. Prosecutors said none would go to trial until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on whether President George W. Bush had authority to create the tribunals to try foreign terrorism suspects after the September 11 attacks.

The court will hear arguments on March 28 and is expected to rule in June or July.

Evidence against the defendants was ordered sealed until introduced at trial, the lawyers said.

Tribunal rules set down by Bush require that defendants have U.S. military lawyers who will be able to review secret evidence that may not be shown to the defendants.

Bahlul has repeatedly challenged that rule.

He is accused of conspiring to commit war crimes by acting as a bin Laden bodyguard and making al Qaeda recruiting videos. He has twice acknowledged his al Qaeda membership in court and twice been interrupted by the presiding officer, Army Col. Peter Brownback, to stop making statements that could be used as evidence against him.

At a January hearing, Bahlul denounced what he called an illegal tribunal set up by enemies of the Muslim nations and said he would sit silently and boycott future hearings.

«That doesn’t mean that I’m going to be totally silent,» he told the court on Wednesday.

Bahlul faces life in prison if convicted.

Arraignment hearings had been scheduled this week for two other Guantanamo captives accused of being al Qaeda bombmakers, Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian, and Ghassan Abdullah al Sharbi, a Saudi.

Sharbi’s hearing was delayed because his military lawyer sought more time to prepare and Barhoumi’s was postponed after he was notified late on Tuesday his father had died.