FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) - Defense lawyers for five men accused of conspiring in the September 11, 2001, attacks asked a judge to halt a pretrial hearing in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Monday over concerns that FBI agents are investigating them.
Earlier this month, two FBI agents approached a defense team member and asked him “to sign an agreement,” said Jim Harrington, an attorney for Ramzi Bin al Shibh, a Yemeni man accused of wiring money to the 9/11 hijackers.
Harrington said the member of his defense team would need to be replaced and called the episode “a chilling experience for all of us.”
Defense attorneys filed an emergency motion on Sunday night to stop the pretrial hearings scheduled for this week until an investigation is conducted on the nature of the FBI encounter.
“We have a conflict of interest,” said Cheryl Bormann, defense attorney for suspected al Qaeda training camp leader Walid bin Attash. Bormann said she couldn’t effectively represent her client if she was under possible investigation by the government.
“We have a real problem, and I‘m asking you to address it,” Bormann asked Army Colonel James Pohl, the military judge presiding over the hearing.
On Monday, attorneys for defendant Bin al Shibh filed a motion asking whether their client was competent to participate in his own legal defense.
In December, Bin al Shibh was repeatedly ordered out of the courtroom for making outbursts about “torture” and a “secret CIA prison,” causing Pohl to issue a separate hearing to determine Bin al Shibh’s mental competence.
After less than an hour in the courtroom, Pohl decided to suspend the hearing until Tuesday morning.
The hearing, at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, was monitored over a closed-circuit broadcast at the Fort Meade, Maryland, Army base.
The U.S. military has called the defendants “high-value detainees” who played key roles in plotting the September 11 attacks, which killed about 3,000 people, destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City and damaged the Pentagon, outside of Washington.
The five defendants could be executed if convicted of charges that include mass murder, terrorism and hijacking.
The defendants were captured in 2002 and 2003 and were first charged at Guantanamo in 2008. The tribunals and the charges were revised by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, and the defendants were arraigned on the current charges in May 2012.
Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis