SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A Pentagon legal official refused Friday to extend an important deadline for defense lawyers for the five Guantanamo Bay prisoners charged in the Sept. 11 attack, a decision that means their highly anticipated arraignment may now occur within months.
Bruce MacDonald, the Pentagon official who oversees the war crimes trials at the U.S. base in Cuba, refused separate requests for extensions from the lawyers for all five prisoners, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the attacks.
The lawyers had asked for extensions ranging from three months to a year to file motions arguing against capital charges that would make the men eligible for the death penalty if convicted. These are the final motions before MacDonald sends the long-stalled case to a military tribunal for trial, and the decision means an arraignment may take place at Guantanamo as early as this spring.
The Pentagon-appointed defense lawyers said they needed more time because of delays getting security clearances and a dispute over new rules on legal mail that they say have prevented them from communicating with their clients. MacDonald said he had already granted extensions and Monday's deadline for filing the motions would not be changed.
"You were given more than adequate time in which to prepare matters in mitigation for my consideration," he wrote to Navy Cmdr. Walter Ruiz, who represents Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, a Saudi accused of helping supply the Sept. 11 hijackers with money, Western clothes and credit cards.
Ruiz said he and the other defense lawyers are considering various options, including asking MacDonald to reconsider, but he conceded they have few avenues to address what they say is another example of a tribunal system that favors the prosecution.
He said that he has not had access to a translator for some meetings with his client, who speaks limited English, and that it is taking too long to get security clearances for defense experts so they can see evidence in a trial that will rely on large amounts of classified evidence. The obstacles, he said, contradict recent statements from military officials that changes in the tribunals have made them more like federal courts.
"The chief prosecutor wants to go out there and say this is a fair process — 'We have transparency. We've brought this back in line with federal procedures.' It's nonsense," Ruiz said. "For us this is just business as usual."
The Sept. 11 case has long been plagued by delays. The defendants' first arraignment was held in June 2008 and the case began moving forward slowly when it was halted by President Barack Obama, who wanted to close the Guantanamo prison and try the men in civilian court. That effort was rebuffed by Congress, and the administration moved the case back to the military's war crimes tribunal at Guantanamo.
The charges against the five allege they were responsible for planning the attacks that sent hijacked commercial airliners slamming into New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people.
What's next is for MacDonald, a retired admiral, to give his final approval to the charges so they can be set for trial by a tribunal known as a commission. At that point, the military will have 30 days to arraign them before a judge.