By Jane Sutton
GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The next hearing for five Guantanamo prisoners charged with plotting the September 11 attacks has been postponed for two weeks to allow the defendants to observe the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The chief judge in the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals, Army Colonel James Pohl, granted the delay on Monday for the alleged architect of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four co-defendants who could face the death penalty if convicted on charges of conspiring with al Qaeda and murdering 2,976 people in the hijacked plane attacks of 2001.
"Today, the military commission rescheduled its next hearing from August 8-12 to August 22-26 to accommodate a defense request to avoid hearings during the last 10 days of Ramadan," said defense attorney James Connell, who represents Mohammed's nephew, defendant Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, also known as Ammar al Baluchi.
The five were arraigned at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in May and their next hearing had already been postponed from June because of scheduling conflicts among the defense lawyers.
Pretrial hearings are scheduled to resume on Tuesday in another death penalty case at Guantanamo - that of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, an alleged al Qaeda chieftain accused of helping orchestrate a deadly attack on a U.S. warship off Yemen in 2000.
Nashiri's hearing had been scheduled to run through Friday but has been cut short by a day, also because of Ramadan, the month when devout Muslims fast during daylight hours. Many Muslims will observe the start of Ramadan on Friday, although some begin and end the fast before or after others because they follow different rules or disagree on whether they have spotted the new crescent moon that marks the start of the month in Islam's lunar calendar.
Nashiri, a Saudi of Yemeni descent, is accused of recruiting and aiding suicide bombers who rammed a boat full of explosives into the USS Cole as it refueled in the Yemeni port of Aden. The blast killed 17 U.S. sailors and wounded three dozen others. He is charged with murder, attempted murder, conspiracy and terrorism.
At this week's hearings, Judge Pohl will consider a defense request for evidence that is classified as secret, and will weigh whether the courtroom should be closed to the press and public while the issue is debated. He will also consider a defense request that he recuse himself from the case.
Nashiri's lawyers argue that Pohl lacks the experience to handle a complicated death penalty case. They also claim he has a financial interest in the case since he was recalled from retirement for the Guantanamo assignment and his income would drop when that duty ends. (Editing by Tom Brown and Mohammad Zargham)