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Judge at Guantánamo Says 9/11 Trial Start is at Least a Year Away

FORT MEADE, Md. — The new judge presiding in the Sept. 11, 2001 case at Guantánamo Bay said on Monday that the trial of the five men accused of plotting the attacks will not begin for at least another year.

The judge, Col. Matthew N. McCall, who took over the case last month, was holding his second week of pretrial hearings at the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, after a delay of more than a year and half caused by the pandemic.

The timeline set by the judge on Monday would mean the trial of the five men, including the accused mastermind of the plot, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, would not get underway until more than 21 years after hijacked jetliners crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Penn.

Colonel McCall was ruling on objections by defense lawyers for two of the defendants, Walid bin Attash and Ramzi bin al-Shibh. The lawyers questioned his qualifications to preside in a death-penalty case because he had not read the filings and court record stretching back to the arraignment of the defendants in May 2012, including the 33,660-page transcript.

They urged him to suspend proceedings until he was properly trained as well as fully acquainted with the rulings by three previous judges in the case.

The judge replied that he had ample time, and a plan, to get up to speed, including taking a National Judicial College course on how to handle capital cases. Because of the pandemic, he will be taking it online, he said.

“At a minimum we are least one year away from trial,” said Colonel McCall, an Air Force colonel. He declared himself qualified by military commission regulations, Air Force bar and ethical obligations and “not bound by a particular timeline to get to trial.”

Colonel McCall is the fourth judge to preside at the Guantánamo court in the conspiracy case against Mr. Mohammed and the four other men who are accused of helping to plot the hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon 20 years ago.

He has been a military judge for just two years, and was recently promoted to colonel, making him the youngest and least experienced of the judges who have overseen the case.

Cheryl Bormann, the lawyer for Mr. Bin Attash, urged the judge last week to suspend the proceedings until he completed the course and was fully acquainted with the three previous judges rulings as a baseline for moving forward.

Instead, the judge said, he had developed a plan to learn as he went along, including holding meetings separately with each individual defense team and also with the prosecutors so they could fill him in on classified information filings. Because it is a national security case, the judge is entrusted with making sure that prosecution decisions on what evidence can be provided to the defense lawyers — and what information is withheld or redacted — does not disadvantage the defense at trial.

An earlier judge had set a timetable to starting the trial in January of this year. But that plan has long since been shelved. At a minimum, based on the judge’s comments, jury selection would not begin until after the 21st anniversary of the attacks.

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