A U.S. military judge on Friday put pretrial hearings in the Sept. 11 terrorism case at Guantanamo Bay on an indefinite hold amid a dispute with officials over the way he travels to the remote courtroom.
Army Col. James Pohl says that as a judge he must be kept separate from participants in proceedings against the accused Sept. 11 plotters. For years, that included taking a Coast Guard speedboat across Guantanamo Bay from the airport to the court on the U.S. base in Cuba. Others involved in the case take a ferry.
The commander of the detention center, Navy Rear Adm. Edward Cashman, abruptly changed base policy on June 23 so that the judge would no longer have access to the boat. A week later, Pohl ruled the new policy would cause him and his staff to be improperly “commingled” with other participants in the trial by military commission. He issued an order that put further hearings on hold until the issue is resolved.
Prosecutors asked him to reconsider and suggested he could ride in a private van on the ferry. Pohl rejected that argument in the order Friday. “In abating the proceedings, the Commission exercised its inherent authority to take steps it deemed necessary to ensure a fair trial,” he wrote in a brief ruling before canceling a five-day pretrial scheduled to start July 17.
Another judge, Air Force Col. Vance Spath, issued a similar order Friday putting a hold on the case of a prisoner charged in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole because of the new transportation policy, said Rick Kammen, the lead defense counsel in that case.
It’s not clear what prompted Cashman to change the boat policy, but a spokesman, Navy Cmdr. John Robinson, issued a statement suggesting the judge’s use of the vessel was deemed inappropriate.
“The new policy strengthens oversight and prevents the misuse of transportation resources as well as the perception of their misuse,” he said, declining to elaborate.
The result is another delay for a case that has been hobbled by repeated setbacks and delays since the May 2012 arraignment and for years before that by a political battle over whether to try the five defendants in a federal court in the U.S. or by a military commission at Guantanamo. A trial date has not been set for the men, who include Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, who has portrayed himself as the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack.
Pohl has previously rejected requests by defense lawyers to abate proceedings over issues that have included health concerns about the defendants and what the attorneys have claimed are a series of efforts to undermine their ability to defend men who could get the death penalty if convicted of charges that include murder in violation of the law of war and terrorism.
“The judge’s decision to cancel the 9/11 hearings because he doesn’t get a personal boat ride is offensive,” said Walter Ruiz, a civilian lawyer for Mustafa al-Hawsawi, a Saudi who is accused of conspiring with Mohammad in the 9/11 attack.
Attorney James Connell, who represents defendant Ammar al-Baluchi, said the latest dispute highlights the challenge of trying the complex case at the remote base instead of a civilian court in the U.S. “The transportation issue is simply the latest in a series of logistical failures at Guantanamo,” he said.
The next round of hearings is scheduled to start Aug. 21. A spokesman for the prosecutor, Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson, said the Defense Department was “exploring available options” to address Pohl’s order but did not provide details of those efforts.