By Tom Ramstack
FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) - An attorney for a man charged with plotting the September 11 attacks accused U.S. military guards at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility on Thursday of seizing his client's private legal documents.
The allegation from Navy Commander Walter Ruiz called into question whether five defendants undergoing a pretrial hearing in the Guantanamo war crimes tribunal can expect a fair trial on charges of terrorism, hijacking and murdering nearly 3,000 people.
Ruiz represents Saudi defendant Mustafa al Hawsawi, who is accused of wiring money to the September 11 airplane hijackers to fund their 2001 attack on the United States. Ruiz said Guantanamo guards seized documents from Hawsawi's cell that were marked "attorney-client privilege."
Under U.S. law, a criminal defendant's right to representation by counsel includes a right to confidential communications with an attorney and private legal documents.
"We have an issue of unlawful authority," Ruiz said.
Under questioning from Ruiz, Navy Commander George Massucco admitted that a Guantanamo guard seized documents from Hawsawi's cell and put them in an envelope.
Massucco, a prison camp lawyer and liaison with "high-value" detainees like Hawsawi, said: "Some of the documents had attorney-client marks on them, yes."
He said he did not read the documents after the guard showed them to him.
"I didn't go any further," Massucco said. "I went to Mr. Hawsawi's cell and I gave it to him."
Prosecutors did not dispute that guards seized documents from the cells of Hawsawi and other Guantanamo prisoners.
The document seizure drew a rebuke from the judge, Army Colonel James Pohl. He said he has seen similar improper searches and seizures from Guantanamo guards on previous occasions as they looked for contraband.
Frequently, commanding officers use the excuse, "We have new people and they didn't know," Pohl said.
Air Force Captain Michael Schwartz, one of the lawyers representing Yemeni defendant Walid bin Attash, said the intrusion into attorney-client mail was causing defendants to mistrust the confidential relationship and "negatively affecting our ability to do our job."
The document seizure is the latest allegation of wrongdoing the defendants' attorneys have lodged against the U.S. military. Other allegations have included physical abuse and harassment.
The pretrial hearing in the death penalty case at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba was monitored by Reuters through closed-circuit television at the Fort Meade, Maryland, Army base.
(Reporting by Tom Ramstack; Editing by Jane Sutton and Eric Beech)