GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Lawyers for five prisoners accused of plotting the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States have asked to see confidential reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross about visits to the defendants at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
They want to see the reports about conditions at the camp’s maximum-security unit to ensure they do not interfere with the defendants’ ability to help prepare a defense.
The issue is one of dozens on the docket for a week-long pretrial hearing that began on Monday in the death penalty case against the alleged mastermind of the hijacked plane attacks on the United States, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four co-defendants accused of funding and training the hijackers.
All five defendants appeared adequately fed, suggesting they have not joined more than 100 other detainees who have waged a four-month hunger strike to protest the failure to resolve their fate after more than a decade of detention at Guantanamo.
They sat quietly in the courtroom as their lawyers questioned a retired admiral who previously oversaw the Guantanamo war crimes tribunal.
The lengthy and at times tedious questioning was aimed at showing the admiral and other military officials meddled in attorney-client communications, which are supposed to be confidential.
The hearing was the first in the case since February, when camp officials revealed that what appeared to be smoke alarms in the huts where defense lawyers met with the defendants were actually microphones.
Camp officials insisted that they never listened to or recorded attorney-client meetings at the detention camp and said the microphones have since been disabled.
Later in the week, the judge will hear from lawyers for the ICRC, whose delegates have made more than 90 visits to the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba since the detention camp was opened in January 2002 to hold men captured in U.S. counterterrorism operations overseas.
The Geneva Conventions, the international treaties that govern the treatment of captives held during armed conflicts, authorize the Geneva-based group to make such visits to ensure that captives are treated humanely.
The ICRC keeps its findings strictly confidential, working privately with detaining authorities to improve conditions for captives.
“The ICRC is as secretive as the CIA,” joked Navy Commander Walter Ruiz, a lawyer who represents alleged al Qaeda money courier Mustafa al Hawsawi.
The 9/11 defendants, and about 10 other captives who were previously held in secret CIA prisons, are housed separately from the general prisoner population at Guantanamo, in a maximum-security facility known as Camp 7.
The judge overseeing the trial ruled in January that defense lawyers could inspect the camp, but those visits still have not been arranged.
The ICRC reports about their clients’ treatment could also yield mitigating information that might spare the defendants from execution if they are convicted of the most serious charges against them, which include terrorism, hijacking and murdering 2,976 people.
ICRC lawyers will argue against releasing their reports to the defense lawyers, even though they have said they would not make them public.
“This absolute right to non-disclosure of the ICRC’s confidential information, including the right not to be compelled to testify in judicial proceedings, has been recognized consistently by international tribunals and by the international community,” the ICRC said.
President Barack Obama, who recently reiterated his intent to close the Guantanamo detention camp, has ordered the military to comply with the Geneva Conventions’ standards for humane treatment.
The State Department is expected shortly to announce the appointment of veteran Washington lawyer Cliff Sloan to oversee the closure of the Guantanamo prison. He will work with a yet-to-be-chosen Defense Department envoy to negotiate the repatriation or resettlement of prisoners who have been cleared for transfer or release.
Editing by Kevin Gray and Cynthia Osterman