FORT MEADE, UNITED STATES – Three South-East Asian terror suspects accused of plotting the 2002 Bali bombings and other attacks appeared before a United States military commission on Monday (Aug 30), beginning what is likely to be a protracted pre-trial stage spanning years.
Indonesia detainee Encep Nurjaman, known also as Hambali and Riduan Isamuddin, and two of his associates were read general charges that include conspiracy, murder, terrorism and attacking civilians, and were advised of their rights.
He and his two associates, Malaysians Mohammed Nazir bin Lep, known as Lillie, 44, and Mohammed Farik bin Amin, known as Zubair, 46, will face a joint trial and can enter their pleas at a later date.
The men were dressed in black or white skullcaps and shalwar kameez, and wore face masks at the arraignment hearing. Hambali, now aged 57 and bespectacled, also wore a greying beard dyed with henna.
The case has so far proceeded at a glacial pace, with the arraignment taking place 18 years after the men were first held and charges approved only in January this year.
It is also complicated by torture that could have compromised the evidence against them.
The three men were captured in Thailand in 2003 in a US-Thai operation and transferred to the US Central Intelligence Agency’s custody, where they were waterboarded, deprived of sleep, and subject to other “enhanced interrogation techniques”.
A 2014 Senate report detailed how Hambali later credibly recanted most of the information he had given under torture, telling investigators he had told his interrogators what they had wanted to hear.
The trio were transferred in 2006 to the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they continue to be detained.
President Joe Biden has stepped up its push to close down Guantanamo, an effort that stymied his predecessor and previous boss, President Barack Obama, who ran into opposition from Congress. The controversial centre currently houses 39 detainees.
The hearing, which took place in Guantanamo Bay, was also transmitted to remote viewing sites at the Pentagon and Fort Meade, Maryland.
The arraignment continues on Tuesday, when the defendants will be asked to enter their pleas.
Monday’s hearing was slowed down by issues over the logistics of interpretation, punctuated by multiple brief breaks. The suspects’ defence attorneys also questioned the competence and impartiality of the assigned court interpreters – one in Bahasa Indonesia for Hambali, and one in Bahasa Melayu for the two Malaysians.
At one point, Mohammed Farik said the structure of his interpreter’s sentences in Malay was “terbalik” – upside down – although Mohammed Nazir said he understood the same interpreter.
Mohammed Farik later switched to the Indonesian language feed, with his lawyer telling the court that he had understood only half of the Malay translations.
After questioning the interpreters about their linguistic and professional qualifications, the military judge, Navy Commander Hayes Larsen, said the court was satisfied with them.
Mr James Hodes, a lawyer for Hambali, also accused the Indonesian interpreter of bias against his client, saying: “Interpreter two has stated, ‘I don’t know why the government is wasting so much money on these terrorists, they should have been killed a long time ago.”
Commander Larsen said that the commission was satisfied that requirements for the interpreters had been met.
Hambali was the leader of the South-East Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which is affiliated to Al-Qaeda.
He is accused of masterminding the Bali bombing in 2002 which killed 202 people, the worst terrorist attack on Indonesian soil. The JI also bombed the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta in 2003, killing at least 11.
JI operatives were also arrested in 2001 for planning suicide bomb attacks on embassies, US Navy warships and other targets in Singapore.
Prosecutors are not permitted to seek the death penalty in this case, under the framework approved by US officials, leaving open the possibility of future plea deals.
The case will likely take a long time to go to trial, if it does. Defence attorneys suggested during the hearing that there were various numerous issues to be addressed afterwards, including the possibility that a previous interpreter was cooperating with the prosecution.
Precedents do not suggest haste. Five Guantanamo prisoners accused of masterminding the Sept 11 attacks, who were arraigned in 2012, have not yet had their trial date fixed.
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