MIAMI – Microphones were found in a room where a Saudi prisoner met with his lawyers at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, U.S. officials said in recently filed court documents that shed light on an incident that has halted legal proceedings in a high-profile terrorism case.
The microphones were found in August 2017 during an inspection of the room by defence lawyers for Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri that they conducted after military officials disclosed that attorney-client meetings in another part of the U.S. base in Cuba could have been overheard.
That set off a chain of events that eventually led senior members of al-Nashiri’s defence team to withdraw from the case, prompting the military judge last month to put an indefinite hold on legal proceedings against the Saudi, who is charged in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.
In their appeal of that decision, prosecutors disclosed the discovery of the microphones. The court filings, which have not yet been released, were first reported Wednesday by The Miami Herald and later obtained by The Associated Press.
Prosecutors described the devices as “disconnected, legacy microphones” that were not connected to any audio or recording system and were never used during meetings that al-Nashiri had with his lawyers over more than 50 days.
But Richard Kammen, a civilian attorney who represented the prisoner, said the prosecution’s description does not adequately describe the incident that compelled him and two other lawyers to withdraw from the case at the direction of an expert in legal ethics. They are forbidden from providing their version, however, because the government says the information is classified.
“It is not an accurate description of what occurred,” said Kammen, an attorney based in Indianapolis. “There is more to this that the government has apparently made the decision not to declassify.”
Al-Nashiri is accused of orchestrating the al-Qaida plot to bomb the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole, an attack off the coast of Yemen that killed 17 American sailors. He was arraigned before a court known as a military commission in November 2011. It was still in pretrial proceedings when the judge, Air Force Col. Vance Spath, indefinitely froze it Feb. 16 after the departure of most of the defence team left the case in disarray.
The judge’s decision frustrated relatives of people killed in the attack and prosecutors, who said in the court filing that the defence lawyers are “engaged in a strategic effort to undermine the military commissions” and “erode the public’s trust and confidence in this system of justice.”
Kammen denies that and said he wouldn’t have been forced to withdraw if the judge had agreed to hold evidentiary hearings to explore issues raised by what the defence found in the meeting room.
“The notion that this was done as a result of strategy is absolutely frivolous,” he said.
It is not the first time that listening devices were found in attorney meeting rooms at Guantanamo. In 2013, lawyers for five prisoners facing trial by military commission for their alleged roles in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack found microphones that were disguised to look like smoke detectors. Prosecutors have said those were not used to eavesdrop on the private conversations between the attorney and the defendants.