By Karen Brooks
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A military appeals court indefinitely postponed the court martial for accused Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Hasan on Friday while it decides if the trial judge can order his beard forcibly shaved, U.S. Army officials said.
Hasan is accused of opening fire at a deployment center at Fort Hood, Texas, on November 5, 2009. He is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in the shooting at the sprawling Central Texas complex.
He faces the death penalty if convicted of murder. A practicing Muslim, Hasan has grown a beard in preparation for his death, which he believes is "imminent," attorneys said.
Hasan's attorneys say the beard is an expression of his religious beliefs, but the unshorn facial hair is in violation of Army grooming regulations.
Because of his beard, Hasan has been repeatedly ordered removed from the courtroom by the presiding judge, Colonel Gregory Gross. Hasan has been held in contempt of court five times and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine.
Earlier this week, Gross appeared ready to order soldiers to forcibly shave Hasan, but the Court of Appeal for the Armed Forces halted the proceedings, saying it would decide whether Gross has the authority to compel Hasan to be clean-shaven.
The Court of Appeal previously rejected Hasan's request that he be granted a "religious accommodation" to wear a beard. Such an exemption has been granted to some men who follow the Sikh faith, which requires men to wear beards.
Hasan, an Army Major, is continuing to receive his pay of about $72,000 a year and is subject to the military's grooming standard, said Army Colonel Jeffrey Addicott, an expert on the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
"He is a military officer until he is found guilty," Addicott said. "We don't allow beards in the military."
A soldier who plotted an attack at Fort Hood last summer was recently sentenced to life in prison following an uneventful federal court trial. The shootings of which Hasan has been accused occurred on the Army post, so military courts have jurisdiction.
Addicott said the delays and squabbling have made the military justice system appear ineffective, and Hasan could put the military in an uncomfortable position.
If Hasan's beard is forcibly shaved, he can argue that the U.S. military discriminates against Muslims, Addicott said. If he is allowed to keep his beard, Hasan can claim he defeated the United States military, he added.
(Reporting by Karen Brooks and Jim Forsyth; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Andrew Stern)