“It’s perfectly patriotic,” said US Navy Commander Suzanne Lachelier, a military attorney appointed to represent one of the accused September 11 plotters.
She is one of only a handful of Americans who work to defend those who committed the horrific attacks in 2001 that killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States.
“Defending the US Constitution, that’s what we do as prosecutors, but also as lawyers for the defense,” this young dynamic woman told AFP.
“It’s about presenting the rights of the accused — it’s not at all about the facts.”
Lachelier was appointed to represent Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni citizen — and one-time roommate of suspected 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta — whom she says suffers from severe mental problems.
President Barack Obama’s administration announced Friday that Binalshibh and four other alleged co-plotters of the worst ever attacks on US soil, including self-proclaimed mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, would be tried in US federal court in New York city, just steps away from the scene of their crime.
“It’s historic. There are a lot of things that you don’t normally deal with in a regular criminal case,” said Michael Acuff, who helps Sheikh Mohammed — known as KSM — represent himself.
“A regular criminal case isn’t affected by new laws that are changing in the middle of the case or by… political concerns at the national level like these cases are, and it is not affected by the types of things that our government has said happened to Mr Mohammed.”
As military reservists, the two lawyers joined in early 2008 the defense team set up by the Pentagon to assist Guantanamo Bay detainees facing trial before military commissions — special tribunals established by Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush.
Mohammed and his co-defendants spent years in secret CIA prisons where they were subjected to other interrogation methods, such as sleep deprivation, incessant loud music, and being forced to stand for long hours in uncomfortable positions.
In announcing the administration’s decision, Attorney General Eric Holder vowed the co-conspirators would stand trial “before an impartial jury” and said he expected to push for the death penalty.
The five are currently held at Guantanamo, the US naval base in southern Cuba where they have already been charged with murder under the much-criticized military commissions system.
After spending years in secret CIA prisons undergoing harsh interrogation techniques that some say amount to torture, the alleged plotters gave these uniformed lawyers a rather cool reception.
“These cases make you think about your own philosophy about justice. They make you think about your own religious beliefs,” noted Acuff.
“There are things in these cases that make you evaluate yourself and your country and obviously a normal case does not often do that.”
Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani, was waterboarded — subjected to simulated drowning — 183 times during his years in US custody.
The evidence US agents obtained from the accused under coercion has raised serious questions about how they could be convicted in any regular US court of law.
Acuff, a veteran lawyer in his fifties, does not hide how much his client holds him in low esteem. At their very first hearing in June 2008, Sheikh Mohammed and his fellow defendants demanded to be rid of their court-appointed American lawyers.
Two of them, including Binalshibh, were not granted their request. And military commissions rules require that all defendants be assigned a military lawyer; those who represent themselves receive a stand-by counsel.
For Adam Thurschwell, a civilian defense lawyer specializing in death penalty matters, the military commissions system “was so grotesquely unfair” that he could not resist a chance to “make a contribution to the fairness of a capital case.”
“Nobody’s in favor of terrorism,” he stressed.
But “a good defense lawyer wants to get his client a fair trial. That’s very difficult to do and harder the more infamous the defendant is.”
That position remains true for these attorneys even after long hours and countless pages of legal challenges to the system as a whole, an appearance before the Supreme Court and only three completed trials.
“For a penal lawyer, the most important thing is to personalize, to humanize a client hated by everyone,” Lachelier said.
Pointing to her client’s legal troubles — he has been treated with psychotropic drugs at Guantanamo — she hopes to convince a jury of angry New Yorkers to “not exaggerate his role” in the plot that led to the September 11 attacks.