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Witness Testifies at Guantanamo by Video After Night in Jail

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 NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- In an unusual war court drama, a demobilized Navy Reserve lawyer testified in the USS Cole case Wednesday by video from Virginia -- "under extreme duress," he said -- a day after the war court judge sent U.S. Marshals to pick him up.

At one point, a letter from a Virginia public defender arrived at the Guantanamo court, offering witness Stephen Gill legal assistance. The judge abruptly delayed testimony to consult a legal precedent dating to the Civil War, then ruled that Gill could be questioned without knowing about the lawyer's letter.

"He might be detained, but he's not being interrogated. Nobody suspects him of a crime," said Air Force Col. Vance Spath, the judge.

The subject of the testimony was behind-the-scenes exchanges in the office of the Legal Adviser for Military Commissions after the Cole case judge disqualified some lawyers from the case last year. It's an ancillary issue in the death penalty case of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 51, accused of orchestrating al-Qaida's 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen. Seventeen American sailors died, and dozens more were wounded.

But Gill testified in the first instance at the court in which a judge here reached into the continental United States to order U.S. Marshals to force a subpoenaed witness to court. Lawyers debate whether the war court has the authority to put a civilian on a plane to Guantanamo. But Gill was to testify by video, anyway.

Gill said he was picked up at his home, apparently in Massachusetts, on Tuesday "at gunpoint," he estimated by 20 officers, put in three-point restraints and held overnight at an Alexandria County, Va., detention facility.

He first appeared on the video conference screen looking distraught and wiping his eyes, in a button-down business shirt. At one point, he sounded like a Guantanamo detainee complaining about conditions of confinement: He was sleep-deprived, he said, because jail guards left the lights on all night, turned the temperatures down to maybe 50 degrees, pumped in "extremely cold air."

Lead prosecutor Mark Miller, a federal attorney on loan to the war court prosecutor, urged Spath to get the testimony over with. He invoked the victims, sailors killed and wounded in the USS Cole attack, and said to do otherwise would be to allow Gill to make Spath's court "a kangaroo court."

This was Gill's second time testifying by video conference from Virginia at the war court, to wrap up testimony from September that was cut short because he was running for state office. He lost.

Gill balked at coming to Virginia this time in part because, according to arguments in court, war court administrators rejected reimbursing his expenses last time over a missing $3 receipt for a toll. He asked, instead, to testify either from the Navy War College in Newport, R.I., or be mobilized to come to Guantanamo.

Prosecutors, who arrange for defense witness testimony, rebuffed the request and got a subpoena ordering him to appear Monday at a secure feed site in Arlington, Va. He didn't show up. Monday night, Spath swore out a Warrant of Attachment and Wednesday morning, soon after Gill appeared on the video screen, he declared his testimony potentially unreliable due to lack of sleep.

At one point, Spath told Gill to take a catnap while the judge read a precedent invoked by Eastern Virginia Federal Public Defender Geremy Kamens -- Ex-Parte Merryman, a habeas corpus petition dating to the Civil War.

The federal defender wrote Gill a letter, and somehow got it delivered inside the courthouse, where the accused terrorist watched silently in a white prison jumpsuit. "I understand that you've been detained by the United States military, that you are present in the Eastern District of Virginia and that you are a civilian citizen of this country," said the letter, which Gill got only after he finished up his testimony and was released from federal custody.

Spath declared Merryman "wholly inapplicable," found that Gill had no right to counsel, had the audio unmuted and ordered him to answer questions from Nashiri's lead defense counsel, Rick Kammen. Kammen, out of earshot of Gill, made clear in court that he was no relation to the public defender, and hadn't alerted Kamens to Gill's detention.

Nashiri's lawyers are trying to show that legal advisers disqualified by Spath last year continued to work on the case. Gill wasn't disqualified and testified that he tried to segregate legal work from the others. Other war court staff described Gill as a troubled employee with marital problems who was fired from war court work for failing to get a security clearance and underperforming.

Gill testified Wednesday that nobody complained to him about his work while he was there. In fact, under questioning Kammen about his disagreements with other lawyers inside the Legal Adviser staff at the Office of Military Commissions, he became visibly energized on screen.

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