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Alleged Sept. 11 plotters get choice: Go to court or meet with Red Cross

The accused Sept. 11 conspirators unfurled their prayer rugs during scheduled prayer breaks at their May 5, 2012 arraignment at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo. They are, from left, Mustafa al Hawsawi, Ammar al Baluchi, Ramzi bin al Shibh, Walid Bin Attash and Khalid Sheik Mohammad, shown in this sketch reviewed and approved for release by a U.S. military security official at the base.
The accused Sept. 11 conspirators unfurled their prayer rugs during scheduled prayer breaks at their May 5, 2012 arraignment at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo. They are, from left, Mustafa al Hawsawi, Ammar al Baluchi, Ramzi bin al Shibh, Walid Bin Attash and Khalid Sheik Mohammad, shown in this sketch reviewed and approved for release by a U.S. military security official at the base. JANET HAMLIN/SKETCH ARTIST

The military judge in the Sept. 11 trial abruptly canceled pretrial hearings for the morning on Wednesday after lawyers announced that some of the accused terrorists were told to choose between meeting with delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross or going to court.

An exasperated Army Col. James L. Pohl, the judge, declared that the men accused of the Sept. 11 attacks faced a “Hobson’s choice.”

“Apparently that’s beyond the ability of people to deconflict things,” Pohl also said, noting that both this week’s court hearing and the visit by the delegates who link prisoners with family were scheduled well in advance.

Pohl set the dates of this year’s hearings last year and already has designated six sets of hearings for 2016. The ICRC, meantime, visits quarterly, in coordination with the Pentagon and prison that now holds 107 detainees.

Apparently that’s beyond the ability of people to deconflict things

Army Col. James L. Pohl, Guantánamo judge

Red Cross delegates arrived at Guantánamo Nov. 30, said Air Force Lt. Col. Michael J. Meridith, a prison spokesman who referred questions about the conflict to the Red Cross, saying that “they are the lead in scheduling” with input from the prison.

“The ICRC has no intention to deprive detainees of any legal process and we strive to offer a maximum of flexibility when visiting detainees,” said Red Cross spokeswoman Anna Nelson. She added the “timing and modalities” of visits are part of the “bilateral and confidential dialogue” between the ICRC and the Department of Defense.

Red Cross delegates routinely bring the captives word from family at the meetings.

We strive to offer a maximum of flexibility when visiting detainees.

Anna Nelson, International Committee of the Red Cross

The conflict became evident after an anonymous Army captain who serves as a lawyer at Guantánamo’s secret Camp 7 prison announced in court that one of the alleged Sept. 11 plotters, Mustafa al Hawsawi, 47, refused to sign a waiver declaring he was voluntarily missing Wednesday’s court session — something he routinely does.

Hawsawi, it turned out, had a scheduled 11 a.m. meeting with Red Cross delegates — who also can protest prison conditions to the Pentagon — and the Army lawyer told him to choose between the two.

All five men awaiting a death-penalty tribunal as alleged conspirators in the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, came to court Tuesday for hearings expected to continue through Friday. On Monday, the trial judge met exclusively with prosecutors and defense attorneys — but no Red Cross meetings were scheduled for that day.

The alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, 50, voluntarily skipped the court hearing on Wednesday to meet with the Red Cross at 4 p.m. An alleged plot deputy, Walid bin Attash, 36, made the other choice. He was skipping a 1:30 p.m. Red Cross meeting because the court was hearing testimony on the detainees’ request for a court order forbidding female escort guards from touching the five defendants in consideration of their Islamic traditions, a motion Bin Attash initiated.

At one point, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor, argued that Hawsawi should be compelled to come to court — briefly raising the specter that Army guards assigned to a Forced Cell Extraction team would tackle and shackle him and bring him to court.

That has not been known to ever happen to any of the Sept. 11 suspects since their September 2006 arrival at Guantánamo. Nor has there ever been a known situation when the Red Cross or prison offered meetings with a captive that conflicted with a court date.

“We’re not minimizing the importance of International Committee of the Red Cross discussions with the detainees,” Martins told the judge. “This is a Law of War facility.”

Pohl implored the general to use his influence to instill in the prison “more of a spirit of ‘Let’s work this stuff out,’ so we don’t waste our time.”

The Sept. 11 defendants were held by the CIA without access to the Red Cross or attorneys from 2002 or 2003 until 2006, and were interrogated with “enhanced interrogation techniques” that President Barack Obama has since banned. Sometimes ICRC delegates, in collaboration with the U.S. military, take photos of the captives for family back home. No photos were being taken this trip.

But alleged plot deputy Bin Attash, who chose to attend court rather than meet with the Red Cross on Wednesday, had been scheduled to talk with family in Saudi Arabia over the weekend on a special stop-and-go Skype-style conversation that allowed for monitoring by U.S. authorities.

It was to be his first video contact from U.S. detention, and followed the death of his mother in September. But it was canceled for technical reasons, said his attorney Maj. Michael Schwartz.

Schwartz noted by email that an Army officer testified on Tuesday “that the government respects detainees’ rights and does not force detainees to choose between two rights. Today, we see that Mr. Bin Attash was forced to choose between meeting with he ICRC and attending a court proceeding where he is on trial for his life. Welcome to Guantánamo.”

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

Verbatim | Red Cross statement

The ICRC has no intention to deprive detainees of any legal process and we strive to offer a maximum of flexibility when visiting detainees. The ICRC is currently carrying out a regularly scheduled visit to the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay. It is our 111th visit to the facility since 2002. The purpose of our visits is to monitor the conditions of detention and the treatment of the detainees, and ensure that they are able to be in contact with their families. The timing and modalities of our visits form part of our bilateral and confidential dialogue with the authorities and as such, I am not in a position to comment further.

Anna K. Nelson, International Committee of the Red Cross, Washington, D.C.

About Red Cross portraits

Click here to see ICRC portraits from Guantánamo assembled by the Miami Herald

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