Alleged al-Qaida Commander Fires Legal Team, Paralyzing Gitmo Trial

In this May 13, 2009 file photo, reviewed by the U.S. military, the sun rises over the Guantanamo detention facility on the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
In this May 13, 2009 file photo, reviewed by the U.S. military, the sun rises over the Guantanamo detention facility on the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- An Iraqi prisoner accused of running al-Qaida's army in Afghanistan after 9/11 fired his two Pentagon-appointed lawyers Tuesday, indefinitely stalling the one war-court case that had been edging toward trial.

Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, in his 50s, did not give a specific reason for why he dismissed Marine Lt. Col. Thomas Jasper and Air Force Maj. Ben Stirk. In November, they got a judicial restraining order forbidding female guards from touching him in transport to and from court and legal meetings. The judge then reversed himself and restored co-ed guard transport units in February.

The judge, Navy Capt. J.K. Waits, did not ask al-Hadi in open court why he rejected his lawyers. Jasper got to the case a year ago, when Stirk was already on it. The Marine was part of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, a time when, according to al-Hadi's charge sheet, the Iraqi was in Afghanistan directing al-Qaida forces.

"Your right to counsel does not include, according to case law, a 'meaningful relationship' between yourself and your counsel. You don't have to like them," the judge in a black robe scolded the prisoner before releasing the two military lawyers from the case.

Al-Hadi, in a white tunic and turban, replied in even tones that it was unfair to blame him for the delays in his case. He arrived at Guantanamo in 2007 and was arraigned in June 2014. He's had three legal teams: His first defense lawyer, Marine Lt. Col. Sean Gleason, was removed from the case and reassigned to defend one of the accused Sept. 11 conspirators. His second defense lawyer, Army Reserves Lt. Col. Chris Callen, was returned to civilian life, and then he got Jasper. Stirk served as deputy to both Callen and Jasper.

"I stayed here in Guantanamo for seven years and six months without trial, and then after that, my case was sent to court. It took a long time," al-Hadi said.

"The charges were stated to me, and then they were changed, and then my meetings with my defense were spied on," he added without elaborating.

The war court's new chief defense counsel, Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, said he has chosen Army Maj. Robert Kincaid, who has been working on the case, to try to develop an attorney-client relationship with al-Hadi. But Kincaid has yet to get a security clearance to meet al-Hadi. Baker also said he planned to add an American civilian lawyer to the case.

Al-Hadi is accused of commanding al-Qaida's troops in Afghanistan that carried out war crimes after the 2001 U.S. invasion, crimes punishable by life in prison. He's entitled to one U.S. military defense lawyer but gets no civilian lawyer, as defendants do in death-penalty cases.

At his arraignment he had also asked for an Iraqi or Afghan lawyer to help his defense team navigate trial preparation in those countries.

The disruption comes at a critical time. Prosecutors were preparing a so-called jurisdictional hearing, at the al-Hadi team's request, to prove the prisoner is an "alien unprivileged enemy belligerent." It's a threshold requirement for a trial at the war court George W. Bush created before al-Hadi's capture and Barack Obama reformed after al-Hadi got to the U.S. Navy base from a secret CIA prison.

Prosecutors planned to call witnesses for a hearing, a mini-trial of sort, but first defense lawyers were challenging the admissibility of some of the evidence.

With no legal defense team now in place, the judge adjourned the hearing "until a time to be determined based on the detailing of counsel for this accused."

Tuesday's hearing lasted one hour, the shortest by far in the case.

There are only two other cases at the war court, and both are bogged down in delays. The Sept. 11 case has been derailed for months on a potential conflict-of-interest question that arose after the disclosure that FBI teams were investigating defense team members for still unknown reasons. Meanwhile, the judge in the USS Cole bombing case has frozen the proceedings pending a prosecution appeal to a Pentagon panel in Washington, D.C., of two of the judge's rulings.

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