Lawyers for at least two Guantanamo Bay prisoners accused of planning the Sept. 11 attack asked the Pentagon on Thursday to extend a deadline for pretrial motions, which could again delay a case that has been stalled by political and legal disputes for years.
The attorneys for Ramzi Binalshibh and Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi sent letters requesting the extension to the Pentagon legal official who oversees the war crimes tribunals at the U.S. base in Cuba but did not receive an immediate response.
Navy Cmdr. Walter Ruiz, the lawyer appointed to represent al-Hawsawi, said it was likely that extensions also will be sought by attorneys for other prisoners accused in the attack. The U.S. has charged five prisoners in all, including the self-proclaimed mastermind of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Pentagon spokesman David Oten said the requests for extensions were under consideration.
The lawyers are seeking more time to prepare legal motions addressing whether the five prisoners should face the death penalty for charges that include murder. The Pentagon's Convening Authority is to consider those motions before finalizing the charges and arraigning the men before a tribunal known as a military commission.
Once charges are finalized, or "referred to commission" in the language of the Pentagon, the military has 30 days to arraign the prisoners at the base.
In the war crimes case against a Guantanamo prisoner accused of orchestrating the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, the Convening Authority, Bruce MacDonald, took about two months to review the defense team's argument against the death penalty before referring it to a commission as a capital case. It was expected to take at least that long in the Sept. 11 case, but observers had expected the arraignment to happen as early as spring at Guantanamo.
The case has long been plagued by delays. Their 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.
Ruiz is seeking an extension of four months to submit his motion, arguing that new restrictions on legal mail that can be sent to prisoners at Guantanamo, and his pending challenge to those rules in federal court, have interfered with his ability to finish a submission that is due Monday.
A lawyer for Binalshibh wants a six-month extension because of the mail restrictions and because of delays getting security clearances for members of the legal team.
Copies of both letters were obtained by The Associated Press.
The dispute over legal mail at the prison has been going on for months. The commander of the detention center, Navy Rear Adm. David Woods, issued a directive in December that requires legal mail to undergo a security review to ensure prisoners are not receiving prohibited materials, such as top-secret information or objects that might be fashioned into weapons.
Defense lawyers say they cannot abide by the rule without violating military and civilian codes of professional ethics that bar them from disclosing any information about their clients to a third party unless specifically ordered to do so by a court.
The chief defense counsel for the military commissions issued guidelines to the dozens of attorneys who work in the commissions that they should not follow the order and Ruiz says his efforts to work with his clients and prepare motions has been thwarted.
"Mr. Hawsawi is being deprived of his right to counsel at a critical stage of the proceedings," Ruiz wrote to the Convening Authority.