U.S. judge eases communication between Guantanamo inmates, lawyers, frees up letters


The military judge in the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks trial ordered the U.S. government Wednesday to hand over correspondence on Guantanamo prison conditions and lifted restrictions on lawyers’ communications with detainees.

The judge, Col. James Pohl, will review years of reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only human rights group to access the U.S. naval base in Cuba since it opened in 2002, according to one of two rulings revealed by defense lawyers.

After reviewing the massive collection of files, Pohl will decide whether the prosecution or lawyers representing the 9/11 defendants can access them.

Although the ICRC has opposed releasing its confidential records to defense lawyers or the public, its correspondence is “the only independent historical record of the prisoners’ time at Guantanamo,” said James Connell, attorney for accused 9/11 co-conspirator Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, also known as Ammar al-Baluchi.

He said the ICRC communication “may provide important information about the extremely harsh conditions of confinement at Guantanamo over the years.”

In a separate ruling, Pohl for the first time allowed defense lawyers to communicate by mail with the five 9/11 suspects they represent on any topic relating to the case.

“For more than two years, I have not been able to communicate confidentially by letter, telephone or email with my clients at Guantanamo,” said Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas, who represents Ali. “This new order opens the door to a more meaningful attorney-client relationship.”

Lawyers representing the men accused of plotting the 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on U.S. soil have often pressed Washington to lift restrictions on communications with their clients. They have protested mail seizures, surveillance of their correspondence on a secure network and the presence of microphones hidden in smoke detectors in spaces where they met with their clients.

Prison authorities seized all legal mail from “high-value detainees” in October 2011 as part of a review. Defense attorneys were later barred from using the Guantanamo legal mail system for privileged communications.

Following Pohl’s ruling, the judge will be in charge of controlling mail, not prison guards, in a move hailed by the defense. “The issue of privileged legal communications has dogged the military commissions,” Connell said.

Defense attorneys have argued that their inability to communicate confidentially with their clients when away from Guantanamo meant that they lacked a full attorney-client relationship.

“The new ruling implicitly suggests that the prior legal mail regime interfered with the attorney-client relationship, and needed to be changed,” the lawyers said in a statement.