GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – A Yemeni poet accused of crafting Al Qaeda propaganda defiantly admitted Thursday to a U.S. military commission that he is a member of Usama bin Laden's (search) terror network.
Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul (search), 33, is charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes.
"As God is my witness, and the United States did not put any pressure on me, I am an Al Qaeda (search) member," the detainee said through an Arabic interpreter.
Al Bahlul — appearing with head shaved, tan pants and a gray polo shirt — started to speak about his relationship to the Sept. 11 terror attacks but was cut off by the presiding officer, Army Col. Peter E. Brownback.
Earlier, when al Bahlul was asked if he had any questions, he replied: "Am I allowed to represent myself?"
Brownback initially said the order setting up military commissions did not allow for it. But he later appeared willing to accommodate the request, asking if al Bahlul's military-appointed attorney could file a "friend of the court" brief to allow him to represent himself.
Al Bahlul said no, that he would prefer to keep the argument an oral one and did not feel comfortable having his lawyer file the brief. It was unclear if he was unhappy with his defense, but he insisted no one represented him.
The military commission instructions say defendants must be represented by either civilian or military attorneys who are U.S. citizens and certified to practice law in the United States.
"I have a large amount of knowledge," al Bahlul said, when asked whether he had sufficient knowledge of American culture to understand the proceedings.
Brownback warned that even if he were allowed to represent himself, there might be evidence he would not be allowed to see because he doesn't have clearance for classified information.
"I don't think it is fair the evidence would not be presented, and the accused cannot defend himself without seeing such evidence," al Bahlul said.
He added: "I would like to represent myself. If the American system will not allow me to defend myself. ... then I will be a listener only."
Brownback then called a recess to consider the request.
Al Bahlul is one of four Guantanamo detainees being arraigned at hearings this week as the first step toward trials by a five-member military commission — the first such proceedings since German saboteurs were tried secretly during World War II.
Bin Laden's chauffeur, 34-year-old Salim Ahmed Hamdan (search) of Yemen, declined to enter a plea in the first hearing Tuesday. David Hicks (search), a 29-year-old Australian cowboy accused of fighting with Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime, pleaded not guilty Wednesday. Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi (search), a Sudanese born in 1960, is to be charged Friday.
The Pentagon has accused al Bahlul of being a "key Al Qaeda propagandist who produced videos glorifying the murder of Americans to recruit, inspire and motivate other Al Qaeda members" to attack the United States and other countries.
Al Bahlul's father, Hamza Ahmed, told The Associated Press in previous interviews in Yemen that the family has suffered from his son's detention, both "psychologically and financially."
"He is cultured and peace-loving and he speaks English and enjoys reading and writing poetry," said Ahmed, noting his son used to send money home.
He said his son, who is married and has four children, told him in a letter that Pakistan handed him over to the Americans and that he had left Pakistan to seek medical treatment for his grandson before the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
"In his letters he told me how much he missed his wife and children. He has not committed any crimes and he hates no one," Ahmed said.
Al Bahlul's appointed lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Philip Sundel, had been expected to challenge the impartiality of the commission's five members, which has emerged as a key issue in the hearings. The members could be disqualified for good cause.
Hicks' lead civilian attorney, Joshua Dratel, began Wednesday's hearing with a challenge to the impartiality of Brownback, a former military judge, questioning the presiding officer's relationship with John D. Altenburg Jr., a retired Army general in charge of the proceedings.
Brownback served with Altenburg in Fort Bragg, N.C., and his wife worked in Altenburg's office. He also attended the wedding of Altenburg's son and spoke at a retirement roast for the general.
"Our concern is for a full and fair process," Dratel said.
Other panel members who have been challenged include one who knew a firefighter killed in the Sept. 11 attacks and another who arranged the logistics for detainees to be sent from Afghanistan to Guantanamo.