Confidential legal correspondence was improperly taken from the cells of accused plotters of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, lawyers for the defendants said, in the second dispute this week over how the U.S. government is monitoring the defendants.
“The guard force was, in fact, seizing privileged communications” while the defendants were in a military courtroom two days ago, Cheryl Bormann, an attorney for Walid bin Attash, a one-legged Yemeni accused of helping recruit and train the attackers, said today in a hearing at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bin Attash stood up in court today and tried to complain to the judge in Arabic before he was ordered to sit down.
The military judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, put off a decision on how to resolve the handling of legal material, allowing two weeks for defense lawyers and prosecutors to make proposals.
With prosecutors seeking the death penalty in the case, hearings so far have been consumed by debate over the defendants’ rights, such as whether the government is eavesdropping on conversations between the defendants and their lawyers.
Lieutenant Commander George Massucco, the assistant staff judge advocate who oversees legal issues with detainees, said guards seized material from the cells of three of the accused this week as part of routine safety inspections. He said the guards suspected the material, which included letters from attorneys and photos, was suspicious because the stamp marks used by the military to approve them were inconsistent and incomplete.
Most of the material will be returned to the defendants, said Massucco, who attributed the problem to a frequent turnover of guard staff who he said applied the rules for stamping inconsistently over several years.
He said one of the seized items was a photograph of the grand mosque in Mecca, which had been stamped on the back.
“Clearly a stamped picture of Mecca is in no way contraband and should never have been seized,” Massucco said.
The chief prosecutor, Army Brigadier General Mark Martins, said the government will conduct an investigation to determine the circumstances of the seizures.
“Disputes happen frequently in a detention facility,” Martins said. “Sometimes there are just misunderstandings.”
David Nevin, an attorney for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the attacks, said the seized papers had already been cleared and stamped by guards as approved for use by the defendants.
“It goes to our ability to represent these men,” Nevin said.
James Harrington, an attorney for Ramzi bin al Shibh, a Yemeni accused of helping finance the hijackers, said the seizure of legal documents “makes it impossible to have a working relationship with our clients in this atmosphere and this circumstance.”
Mohammed and the four other defendants are accused of plotting the attacks that used hijacked passenger airplanes to kill almost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the Pentagon in Virginia, and in Pennsylvania.
They are charged with conspiring to finance, train and direct the 19 hijackers who seized the four planes, terrorism, hijacking aircraft, conspiracy, murder in violation of the laws of war and attacking civilians.
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