By Jane Sutton
GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba, May 19 (Reuters) - Security restrictions have stymied military defense lawyers’ attempts to prepare for the trial of five Guantanamo prisoners charged in the Sept. 11 plot, according to a request for delay on Monday.
Defense lawyers are asking to postpone the arraignments that were tentatively set for June 5 because the Pentagon has not yet granted security clearances to some members of the defense teams nor provided a secure place for them to view secret intelligence documents.
Lawyers for one defendant, Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi, filed a request for a delay on Monday. Military lawyers assigned to defend four alleged co-conspirators were submitting similar requests, said one of Hawsawi’s attorneys, Navy Lt. Gretchen Sosbee.
"They are all quite similar as we are all dealing with issues regarding clearances and classified spaces," Sosbee said via e-mail.
Arraignment was tentatively set on June 5 for the five, who include alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. They could be executed if convicted in the Guantanamo war crimes court of conspiring with al Qaeda to murder civilians.
Mohammed, Hawsawi and the other three -- Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Ramzi Binalshibh and Walid bin Attash -- are also charged with 2,973 counts of murder, one for each person killed in 2001 when hijacked passenger planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
Each has been visited at the U.S. naval base in Cuba by his chief military lawyer, said the deputy chief defense counsel, Michael Berrigan.
But other military lawyers assigned to the defense teams are still awaiting top security clearances from the Pentagon. Without them, they cannot meet the defendants or even discuss the cases with the chief attorneys.
Nor do the defense lawyers have a secure facility at Guantanamo or in Washington to view classified intelligence material that is expected to figure heavily in the cases, Hawsawi’s chief defense attorney, Army Maj. Jon Jackson, said in his request for a delay.
"The construction for the facility in Washington, D.C. was to be completed by the end of 2007 but, to date, construction has not begun," he said in the document.
The charges allege a complex conspiracy spanning several years and involve prisoners who were held for years in secret CIA prisons. But none of the evidence has been turned over to Hawsawi’s defense team, making it impossible for his lawyers to prepare for trial, Jackson said in the document.
The charges were delivered to the five prisoners earlier this month and the rules require that their trials begin within 120 days unless the defense wins a delay.
Defense lawyers asked last week that charges be dismissed altogether on grounds that they were tainted by politics and improper influence from senior Pentagon officials.
The widely criticized Guantanamo tribunals are the first U.S. war crimes tribunals since World War Two. They were established after the Sept. 11 attacks to try non-American captives whom the Bush administration considers "unlawful enemy combatants," who are not entitled to the legal protections granted to soldiers and civilians.
The military hopes to try about 80 of the 270 Guantanamo prisoners. The first case set for trial, that of a Yemeni who has admitted his was Osama bin Laden’s driver, was postponed last week pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision on whether prisoners held at the U.S. base in Cuba have any rights under the U.S. Constitution. The ruling is expected in late June.
Hearings are scheduled to resume at the base this week for two other captives, but neither case is anywhere near ready for trial.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)