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In a dramatic moment during the third day of military commission hearings, Yemeni defendant Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul told the commission panel selected to decide his fate that he is a member of al-Qaida. Bahlul, an alleged al-Qaida propagandist accused of making recruiting videos for the terrorist organization and serving as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, made the statement while requesting that he be allowed to represent himself before the military commission. In his native Arabic, Bahlul proclaimed, “I’d like the judge to understand … and the members of the panel, and the prosecution, and the defense team, that until this point does not represent me, and the visitors and if it’s being viewed by media channels, the people watching as well, and all the people of the entire globe to know that … I am from al-Qaida and the relationship between me and Sept. 11 is … “ At that point, presiding officer Army Col. Peter Brownback III interrupted Bahlul and instructed the panel to disregard the defendant’s statement. Under military commission rules, prosecutors may seek to formally introduce the statement into evidence at a later time, says Navy Lt. Susan McGarvey, a spokeswoman for the military commission process. The sole standard for admission of evidence to a military commission is that it have probative value to a reasonable person. Bahlul entered the courtroom wearing a roomy polo shirt, khaki pants, and slip-on sneakers. He sat before the panel with his assigned military lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Philip Sundel, and a defense team translator. Bahlul, who is 36 years old, was clean-shaven and had streaks of cortisone on his face to treat an irritation. Bahlul remained seated when people in the courtroom rose as the commission entered and exited, but seemed engaged and animated throughout the proceeding. According to several Arabic speakers in the courtroom, the real-time translation of Bahlul’s remarks included several striking errors. One experienced Arabic linguist who was watching the hearing said Bahlul indicated that his confession was not made under coercion from the U.S. government. In court, the declaration was translated as “I testify that the American government is under no pressure.” At another point, Bahlul referenced secular law and Islamic religious law, or Shariah. The phrase was translated as civil and local law. “The translation completely distorted the meaning of what the defendant was trying to say,” says Sam Zia-Zarifi, an observer representing Human Rights Watch. But Bahlul’s request to represent himself was crystal clear. Brownback responded by reading from the military commission procedures. “The answer is no, you’re not allowed to represent yourself,” he said. But later Brownback seemed to relent, engaging Bahlul in a dialogue about his education and understanding of the law. He agreed to forward Bahlul’s verbal request along with legal briefs from either side to the appointing authority for a determination. In addition, Bahlul asked that the commission consider allowing him to retain a Yemeni lawyer as part of his legal team if his request to represent himself is denied. He stated that if he is not allowed to represent himself, he does not wish to attend proceedings. Bahlul’s case has been stayed pending a decision. Military commission rules state that defendants “must be represented at all relevant times by detailed [military] defense counsel.” Neal Sonnett, a Miami criminal defense lawyer and former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, suggested Bahlul could be permitted to represent himself with a military defense attorney serving as standby counsel.

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