By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - Lawyers defending the Guantanamo prisoners accused of plotting the September 11 attacks can visit the top-secret prison where the alleged al Qaeda conspirators have been held for more than six years, a judge has ruled.
But they can only stay 12 hours, not the 48 hours they requested, defense lawyers said on Thursday.
The judge overseeing the war crimes tribunals at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Army Colonel James Pohl, signed an order allowing the visits on Tuesday.
The judge's order has not been cleared for public release, but defense lawyers, who have never previously been allowed inside the prison known as Camp 7, said it allowed up to three members of each defense team to visit the cells, one team at a time, between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.
In a hearing last month, defense lawyers asked to make repeated visits and stay in the cells adjacent to those of their clients for 48 hours at a time to assess the conditions.
"I think this is a step in the right direction," said Navy Commander Walter Ruiz, who represents Saudi defendant Mustafa al Hawsawi, an accused al Qaeda money courier.
However, he said, in order to ensure the prisoners are being held in compliance with the laws of war, their lawyers still need periodic visits and access to confidential reports filed by inspectors from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The five defendants include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused architect of the hijacked planes plot, and four other prisoners accused of funding and training the September 11 hijackers and helping them make travel arrangements. The 19 hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field in the 2001 attacks.
They are housed separately from the general prison population, in a maximum-security detention facility reserved for captives previously held in secret CIA prisons overseas.
Lawyers typically meet with their clients in small, trailer-like huts where the prisoners are brought by camp guards.
Camp 7's very existence was not publicly acknowledged until more than a year after the former CIA captives were transferred to Guantanamo in 2006. They are taken to another facility to meet with their defense lawyers.
Defense lawyers said all five defendants were tortured in the CIA prisons, and a sixth defendant was dropped from the case because a Pentagon official agreed he had been tortured.
Harsh prison conditions could be a mitigating factor that could spare the defendants from the death penalty if they are convicted of war crimes that include terrorism, hijacking and murdering 2,976 people in the United States on September 11, 2001.
Defense lawyers said Pohl's order would allow them to photograph and sketch any part of the Guantanamo prison accessible to their clients, and to take notes during the visit, all of which must be treated as top secret, and undergo a security review.
They will not be allowed to talk to the guards or to anyone other than their own clients, they said.
Prosecutors did not object to letting the defense lawyers into the camp but said two-day visits would be disruptive.
"A key thing we were trying to avoid is having the detention facility put on a show for us for a short period of time," said defense attorney James Connell, whose client, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, is accused of wiring money to the hijackers for their flight school tuition.
"Twelve hours is at least a time where we can start to gather information. If we feel more information is necessary we can go back to the judge," Connell said.
He said he doubted the visits could be arranged before the next pretrial hearing on April 22.
(Editing by David Adams and Doina Chiacu)