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Sept. 11 military tribunal to start today

Almost seven years after terrorists hijacked airliners and used them as missiles to kill 2,973 people, five men who allegedly plotted the attacks face a military tribunal today.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, will be arraigned simultaneously with four other detainees inside a high-security courthouse in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Mohammed boasted of numerous attacks and plots against the U.S. in a closed military hearing last year, and the al-Qaida kingpin and his confederates will be given the chance to speak out again in their war crimes trial, according to a top tribunal official, Air Force Brig. Gen. Tom Hartmann.

“In the course of trial, they'll have opportunity to present their case, any way they want to present it subject to rules and procedures,” Hartmann said. “That's a great freedom and a great protection we are providing to them. We think … it is the American way.”

The arraignment will launch the highest-profile test yet of a tribunal system that faces an uncertain future. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down an earlier system as unconstitutional in 2006, and is to rule this month on the rights of Guantanamo prisoners, potentially delaying or halting the proceedings.

And with less than eight months remaining in President Bush's term, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain both say they want to close the military's offshore detention center.

Mohammed and the four alleged co-conspirators all face possible death sentences. They are expected to be seated this morning at separate defense tables aligned in a row inside the prefab courthouse. Many of the participants and observers will stay nearby in tents erected on an abandoned airport runway as part of the “expeditionary” legal complex.

Family members of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, wanted to attend, but the military said it was too difficult logistically to accommodate dozens more people. Instead, the military is planning to show the trial but not the arraignment on closed-circuit television to victims' families gathered on U.S. military bases.

The tribunals, which Congress and the Bush administration resurrected after the 2006 Supreme Court ruling, have been mired in confusion over courtroom rules and dogged by delays. No detainee has been tried yet, although David Hicks was convicted through a plea bargain.