A senior Pentagon official on Friday ordered the release of a Marine general confined to his trailer park quarters at Guantánamo’s Camp Justice for refusing to obey a military judge’s order.
Brig. Gen. John Baker, 50, was in the third day of a 21-day contempt sentence issued by the military judge in the USS Cole case from a dispute over who has the authority to release attorneys of record. Baker, a 28-year career military officer, is the second highest-ranking lawyer in the Marine Corps and chief defense counsel for military commissions.
The release was ordered just before a federal judge held a hearing in Washington, D.C., on a habeas corpus, unlawful detention petition brought on Baker’s behalf by a group of civilian criminal defense lawyers. However, the sentence could be re-imposed later, and Baker’s contempt conviction was not vacated.
The senior Pentagon official overseeing military commissions, Harvey Rishikof, called the convening authority, suspended that sentence, pending a review.
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At Guantánamo, Baker got a letter at his trailer at 1 p.m. “notifying him that the imposition of the remainder of his sentence was delayed until the Convening Authority makes a final decision on the matter,” said Pentagon spokesman Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson.
The general had no comment as he headed to his hilltop office overlooking the maximum-security war court compound called Camp Justice. Baker was wearing a Marine combat uniform, typical of his attire at the base in southeast Cuba when he’s not in court, and stopped his jeep long enough to permit a quick photograph.
Soon after, at the U.S. District Court on 333 Constitution Ave., Judge Royce Lamberth chose not to rule on the lawfulness of Baker’s detention, saying the military had made a “wise decision” by releasing Baker. But, he said, if the military didn’t take further action in a “reasonable” amount of time, he might further review the case later.
“I’m not going to stand down, I’m simply going to give the military time to clean up its own act,” Lamberth said. “And its first step was a good one.”
Michel Paradis, a civilian appellate lawyer who works for Baker, said that while Baker’s release was a positive step, the deferred sentence was still problematic. Paradis said under his understanding of the law, the military authority that ordered Baker freed does not have the power to overturn his conviction.
“At any time, the convening authority can reimpose the sentence on him,” Paradis said — even a decade from now. As he goes about his duties as chief defense counsel, the possibility of having to go back into detention will be “a sword over his head.”
Baker has refused an order by the USS Cole case judge, Air Force Col. Vance Spath, to rescind his decision to release three civilian defense lawyers from the case. At issue is whether he or Spath actually has the power to let war court lawyers of record go. Spath says that’s the role of a judge. Baker says in the case of military commissions, the tribunal system set up after the Sept. 11 attacks, it is solely his domain.
The three defense lawyers — Rick Kammen, Rosa Eliades and Mary Spears — asked to be taken off the case of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, who is accused of plotting the al Qaeda suicide bombing of the warship off Aden, Yemen, in October 2000. Seventeen U.S. sailors died in the attack, and Nashiri could face execution if he’s convicted.
The lawyers cited classified ethical reasons as requiring their resignations, but without their participation Nashiri does not have an attorney trained in capital defense on his team.
Nashiri’s pretrial hearings continued Friday, despite the absence of the three lawyers. His lone remaining attorney, Navy Lt. Alaric Piette, refused to question some witnesses that were called to be there by the defense, saying he had done no cross-examinations in a capital case before.
Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg reported from Guantánamo; McClatchy correspondent Kate Irby from Washington, D.C