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Disrupted legal meetings could snarl start of Guantánamo’s first 9/11 hearing of 2018

The war court headquarters at Camp Justice, as seen through a broken window at an obsolete air hangar at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on February 28, 2015, in an image approved for release by the U.S. military. (Carol Rosenberg/Miami Herald/TNS)

The first war court session of the year opens Monday with a request by lawyers for the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to immediately suspend because the prison canceled year-end meetings between some captives and their lawyers.

A Marine lawyer traveled to this remote base before Christmas for 16 scheduled hours of meetings with Khalid Sheik Mohammed to prepare for this seven-day hearing session — and was granted four hours of visitation around the time Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made a holiday troop visit. Similarly, attorneys for an alleged 9/11 plot deputy said that they had end-of-year trial planning meetings canceled.

“It was not our decision to hold the largest capital case in the history of the world on a faraway island with under-resourcing and under staffing,” Mohammed’s death-penalty defense attorney David Nevin said Sunday.

Commanders have in the past blamed meeting cancellations at the prison of 41 captives on a shortage of guards who have Top Secret clearances on the prison staff of 1,500 troops and contractors. Guards move the detainees around the Detention Center Zone — to legal meetings, medical appointments and the occasional chat with delegates of the International Red Cross.

At least one captive who had been held for years by the CIA was undergoing a forensic MRI on base to explore for possible traumatic brain injuries during the same week Mattis visited.

Another issue on Judge Army Col. James L. Pohl’s docket involves the guards’ seizure of U.S. government-issued electronic laptops and hard drives — none of them networked — that the accused terrorists and their lawyers have been using for years to prepare for the trial that has no start date.

Lawyers say Mohammed and the other four accused need the equipment returned because it is packed with briefs, pretrial discovery material, the captives’ notes and confidential communications between the lawyers and captives. The two sides share the material via a hard drive, and the defense lawyers describe it as essential for trial preparation.

Prosecutor Ed Ryan has said the government has no intention of giving the material back to the captives.

Meanwhile, Pohl’s staff has the electronics while the two sides debate which U.S. intelligence unit, if any, can explore the devices.

Attorney Jay Connell, who represents Mohammed’s nephew Ammar al Baluchi, said he does not “expect the entire case to grind to a halt because of the laptop issue.”

A series of pretrial legal motions are up for discussion inside the court this week, in both open and classified sessions. But Connell called the laptop issue “a serious problem that the judge will be hard pressed to resolve.”

Nevin said the laptop showdown should force abatement of the trial. “In the era that we live in you can’t do this process without a computer.”

The 9/11 case alleges a far-reaching, years-long al-Qaida conspiracy in which five Guantánamo captives allegedly trained, financed and assisted in travel arrangements for the 19 hijackers who killed 2,976 people in New York, the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001. The Pentagon prosecutor seeks their execution, if they are convicted.

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© 2018 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.