9/11 suspects ask Obama to declassify torture claims
The (Hamburg, Germany) Deutsche Presse-Agentur
FORT MEADE, Md. — The attorneys for five men accused of plotting the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have asked US President Barack Obama to declassify information about their alleged torture and abuse during interrogations.
"The existing classification restrictions surrounding the RDI (rendition, detention and interrogation) programme only facilitate further concealment of war crimes committed by agents of our government," the attorneys charged in a letter released Friday.
Defence lawyers have been prohibited from introducing accounts by their clients of alleged torture during pretrial hearings because it has been declared classified information.
At hearings Friday at a military courtroom at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, trial judge Colonel James Pohl gave approval for defence lawyers to obtain photographs of some of their clients' wrists and ankles to show scars, presumably from such abuse.
But the photos would have to be submitted to a review panel that would determine whether they are classified, he ruled.
In other developments on Friday, both Pohl and the prosecution expressed impatience with the slow pace of the pretrial phase that began in May 2012 with formal arraignment of the five accused: self-proclaimed mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Walid bin Attash, Mustafa al-Hawsawi and Ramzi Binalshibh.
All but al-Hawsawi were in the courtroom.
The formal trial would not begin before January 2015 at the earliest under a schedule proposed by the prosecution Friday. One defence lawyer suggested it could be another year or two beyond that, given more than 100,000 pages of evidence that the government has had ten years or more to collect.
Until Friday, the target date for the trial begin had been September 2014. Drawn-out pretrial issues about classified evidence on alleged torture of the defendants, unfair treatment of the suspects in prison and complaints of violation of attorney-client privilege have extended that time line.
Commander Walter Ruiz, who represents al-Hawsawi, released the letter to Obama to the press. In it, the lawyers appealed to Obama's declaration in June 2011 when he assured compliance with the international Convention Against Torture. The president said he "will prohibit torture without exception or equivocation."
But Obama did not address how evidence of torture would be handled in Guantanamo Bay cases taking place at the prison, where foreign terrorist suspects have been held since 2002. The attorneys have repeatedly asked the court and US military to allow their clients to testify about their abuse.
In hearings earlier this week, the court heard an ironic protest from James Connell, the lawyer representing Aziz Ali, who waved a sealed envelope in the air as a symbol of his frustrations over how little he is allowed to say.
The envelope contained his client's personal account of his alleged abuse. Connell said he had not read it - the court barred him from doing so.
He complained that he is prevented from sending it to a third party such as the UN's special rapporteur on torture. Defence lawyers say the evidence is particularly important because their clients all face the death penalty in connection with the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.
The accused have been in US custody for up to 10 years after being captured outside the US. During a rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) programme, some were held for years in black prisons operated by the CIA.
US officials have confirmed that a technique called waterboarding - a procedure that imitates drowning and is considered torture by critics - was used a number of times on Mohammed.
In their letter, the lawyers also noted that former president George W Bush in 2003 ruled that classification rules were not to be used to conceal violations of law or prevent embarrassment to an organization or agency.
The defence lawyers asked Obama to affirm Bush's ruling "so that the promise of fair and transparent justice at Guantanamo is not an empty promise."
By classifying torture information, the government was "suppressing evidence, suppressing the truth, and ultimately will suppress any real justice," the defence lawyers said.
There was no reaction from the White House. The chief prosecutor, Brigadier General Mark Martins, refused Friday to comment on the letter at a press conference in Guantanamo after the court closed for the day.