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Khalid Sheikh Mohammed won't testify at bin Laden relative's trial, judge rules

By Lena Jakobsson, CNN
updated 5:24 PM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, is accused of being al Qaeda's propagandist
  • His defense wanted testimony by admitted 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
  • A federal judge called the request "entirely baseless" in a scathing ruling

New York (CNN) -- In a scathing ruling, a federal judge has denied a request by Osama bin Laden's son-in-law to have alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed testify in his defense at trial, either by teleconference from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp or via deposition.

In a motion to the court over the weekend, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith's defense team said Mohammed can provide evidence that their client had no knowledge of planned terror attacks and asked that portions of an unsworn, written statement by Mohammed be allowed before the jury even if his testimony was not.

Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, issued a rambling defense of Abu Gaith, who is on trial in New York. Abu Gaith is accused of being al Qaeda's propagandist in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The rare statement by Mohammed was in response to questions from Abu Gaith's attorney and was filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Sunday night.

At a hearing on the matter Tuesday morning, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan called the defense motion "entirely baseless" and said nothing Mohammed may testify to is relevant to Abu Ghaith's case. "There isn't a shred of evidence that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ever met Sulaiman Abu Ghaith at all," Kaplan said.

Abu Ghaith was captured last year after years of being among a group of alleged al Qaeda operatives sheltered in Iran. He was arrested in Turkey and deported to Kuwait via Jordan, which helped U.S. agents capture him.

In his statement, Mohammed said Abu Gaith was a "pious man" and among many scholars drawn to Afghanistan when the Taliban took control of the country in the mid-1990s. He said he doesn't recall meeting Abu Ghaith and that, as a scholar and preacher, Abu Ghaith wouldn't have known about military operations, in part because al Qaeda was careful to restrict access to such information.

"He did not play any military role, and to the best of my knowledge, he did not receive any military training at any of the training camps for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan," Mohammed said.

Prosecutors had objected to Mohammed's testimony, saying the issue is causing unnecessary delays and is inconsequential because Mohammed has said he will not agree to testify. "This is a motion for what? They have no witness, judge," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Lewin at the hearing.

Abu Ghaith's defense attorney Stanley Cohen said the defense team has worked as quickly as possible since last summer to secure Mohammed's testimony, but stalling and administrative roadblocks by the Department of Defense made their efforts futile.

"At the end of the day, the DoD was never going to let Khalid Sheikh Mohammed appear in a courtroom," said Cohen in court.

A clearly aggravated Kaplan dismissed Cohen's claim and instead said the defense team "sat on their hands" as the case headed for trial. Kaplan also noted that the attorneys were offered the opportunity last month to conduct an in-person interview with Mohammed at Guantanamo Bay, but for some reason changed their minds and submitted written questions only. When Cohen rose to respond, he was told to sit back down.

Cohen and co-counsel Zoe Dolan told CNN after the hearing that they abandoned the plan to interview Mohammed when they were told representatives for the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice would be present.

Also Tuesday, Kaplan told Dolan she may face sanctions for improperly bringing another motion alleging the prosecution has not turned over exhibits to the defense as required. As the attorney began to respond, Kaplan adjourned the session and left the bench.

The jury returns Wednesday morning for testimony by an audio expert for the defense about the authenticity of an audio recording allegedly featuring the defendant and a character witness who is traveling from Kuwait to testify.

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