By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - Mail inspectors at the Guantanamo prison camp will be held in contempt of court if they disclose the contents of attorney-client mail without permission, the chief judge in the U.S. war crimes tribunals has ruled.
The ruling by the judge, Army Colonel Jame Pohl, aims to settle a dispute between U.S. military jailers at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba and the U.S. military and civilian lawyers defending Guantanamo prisoners on terrorism charges.
The ruling puts the mail screeners, who are mostly Pentagon contractors, under Pohl's authority and requires them to obtain his permission before disclosing any information gleaned from confidential legal mail.
Violators could face contempt of court charges, which carry a penalty of up to 30 days in jail and a fine up to $1,000, according to the manual governing the tribunals, which are formally known as military commissions.
"At least now, if this works the way the judge contemplated, they're answerable to him," said Rick Kammen, one of the defense lawyers involved in the case.
Pohl signed his ruling on Friday. It is not classified as secret but has not been publicly released because it is still under Pentagon review, and Kammen described its contents to Reuters.
For now, the ruling applies only in the case of Saudi captive Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, who could be executed if he is convicted of directing a deadly suicide bomb attack on a U.S. warship off Yemen in 2000. He is currently the only captive facing charges in the Guantanamo tribunals.
But the ruling could have broader implications because Pohl is the chief judge for the tribunals, and charges are expected to be referred for trial soon in the case of five Guantanamo prisoners accused of plotting the September 11 attacks.
VIOLATION OF RIGHTS
A lawyer for one of those prisoners has sued the prison camp commander in U.S. District Court in Washington, claiming the mail-screening rules are unconstitutional and violate his right to communicate privately with his client.
Generally under U.S. law, conversations between defendants and their lawyers are confidential and cannot be used as evidence.
Defense lawyers in the Guantanamo tribunals have argued that submitting case-related documents for screening would force them to illegally disclose trial strategy, violating the defendant's right to a fair trial. They said it was also an ethical violation that could put their own law licenses in jeopardy.
At a pretrial hearing last month in the Guantanamo court, Pohl took the unusual step of ordering the detention camp commander, Rear Admiral David Woods, into court to testify about the newly stringent mail screening rules he imposed in December.
Woods said it was necessary for a "privilege team" made up of lawyers, translators and former intelligence officers, to review the legal mail to ensure it did not contain contraband or information that could compromise security.
A prosecutor said in court that a copy of the al Qaeda-linked magazine "Inspire" had been mailed to the camp, suggesting that was the reason for the new rules. She did not elaborate and neither Pentagon nor prison camp officials would give any details about who sent it or whether it was actually delivered to a prisoner.
Nashiri's lawyers said they had not mailed the magazine. Asked if they were satisfied with Pohl's ruling, Kamen said, "We choose to be hopeful."
(Reporting By Jane Sutton; Editing by Philip Barbara)