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Angry outburst at Sept 11 hearing in Guantanamo

Feb. 14, 2013 - 05:04PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 14, 2013 - 05:04PM  |  
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GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — A pretrial hearing in the Sept. 11 war crimes case started Thursday with an angry outburst from one of the defendants complaining about searches of his cell by guards at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Walid bin Attash stood up to complain about the searches and sought to address the court but was repeatedly interrupted and told to sit down by the military judge, Army Col. James Pohl.

"In the name of God, there is an important thing for you," he began as Pohl cut him off and told his lawyers that the only way he could address the court would be to testify from the witness stand.

"I'm not here to testify," replied bin Attash, who wore a flowing white robe and has a prosthetic leg because he lost a limb fighting in Afghanistan.

Pohl, who has allowed the defendants to speak in court in previous court appearances, halted him with a stern warning to defense attorney Cheryl Bormann. "I'm going to tell your client one more time to sit down or he will be taken out of the courtroom."

Bormann told the judge that her client was upset because guards had searched his cell while he was in court and confiscated legal papers related to his case. A prison official later testified that papers and books were taken from four of the defendants over the past week during security inspections, though some of the material was later deemed permissible and would be returned.

Bin Attash, a native of Yemen who grew up in Saudi Arabia and is accused of providing logistical assistance to the Sept. 11 hijackers, sat down as members of his defense team appeared to calm him down.

The outburst came on the final day of four days of pretrial motions hearings. The five defendants are being tried by a tribunal for wartime offenses known as a military commission. They face charges that include murder and terrorism for their alleged roles planning and aiding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and could get the death penalty if convicted. Their trial is likely more than a year away as the defense and prosecutors duel over a wide range of preliminary legal issues.

The May 2012 arraignment in the long-stalled war crimes case was an unruly 13-hour spectacle, drawn out as the defendants refused to use the court translation system, ignored the judge and stood up to pray in court. The defendants sat out portions of this week's session but, when they were in court, had remained largely silent. The lead defendant, self-professed terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, has sat quietly at his defense table, wearing a military-style camouflage vest over his white robe.

This week's hearings have largely dealt with fears by members of the five defense teams that the U.S. government has been eavesdropping on their private conversations, violating the core legal principal of attorney-client privilege.

Military officials have confirmed that the meeting rooms used by the attorneys have microphones apparently disguised to look like smoke detectors but that there is no recording capability and they have not been used to monitor the private meetings that prisoners have with their lawyers or the Red Cross.

With the court still taking testimony on the eavesdropping capabilities, the issue of whether legal papers have been improperly seized from the defendants diverted the hearing for several hours.

A prison legal adviser, Navy Lt. Cmdr. George Massucco, testified that guards seized items that appeared to lack the correct security stamp.

The confiscated items included a photo of the Grande Mosque in Mecca inside the cell of bin Attash as well as three books inside the cell of defendant of Ramzi Binalshibh. The books included "The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda," by former FBI agent Ali Soufan, which he received from his lawyer.

Massucco said that some of the documents, including the photo of the mosque, did in fact have security stamps and would be returned. Prison officials were still weighing whether to return the books.

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