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Guantanamo defendants' legal documents were seized, lawyers say

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Guards rifled through defendants’ cells and seized their confidential legal documents while the accused were in the courtroom listening to assurances that no one reads their private attorney-client mail, defense lawyers charged on Thursday.

Walid Bin Attash, also spelled Waleed bin Attash, appears at his arraignment as an accused 9/11 co-conspirator in this courtroom sketch reviewed and approved for release by a U.S. military security official, at Guantanamo Bay Navy Base, Cuba, May 5, 2012. REUTERS/Janet Hamlin/Pool/Files

The accusations were made during a pretrial hearing at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base for five prisoners accused of plotting the September 11 hijacked plane attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

This week’s hearings have focused on defense claims that the U.S. government is eavesdropping on confidential attorney-client conversations, a claim that prosecutors emphatically deny. The lawyers have also alleged that guards seized confidential legal mail from the defendants’ cells and read it, something the camp’s legal advisor denied in testimony on Tuesday.

Defense attorney Cherly Bormann said her client, Walid bin Attash, had returned to his cell after Tuesday’s hearing to find that bins containing his legal documents had been ransacked and that confidential papers related to his defense were missing.

“We need to stop this now,” Bormann said. “This affects our ability to do our jobs.”

She said her client feared it would happen every time he showed up for court.

Bin Attash, a one-legged man with shoulder-length curls, stood and shouted to the judge, “In the name of God there is an important thing for you ...”

The judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, told him several times to sit down, and threatened to have him removed from the courtroom, but said bin Attash could speak later, under oath. Bin Attash is accused of running an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan where two of the hijackers trained.

Defense attorneys said legal documents had also been seized from the cells of defendants Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the hijacked planes attack, and Ramzi Binalshibh, who has said he tried to join the hijackers but could not get a U.S. visa, while they were in court on Tuesday.

The attorneys said the seizures were making it impossible for them to prepare an adequate defense. “It causes an enormous emotional problem which makes our job close to impossible,” said Binalshibh’s lawyer, James Harrington.

Military lawyers who had worked at the detention camp testified earlier in the week that they were required to open detainee mail from their lawyers, inspect it for contraband such as staples and paperclips, and stamp it as legal mail after giving it a cursory scan.

One Army lawyer formerly stationed at Guantanamo said he thought he had been removed from that job because he raised ethical concerns about inspecting legal mail.

The defendants could face the death penalty if convicted of charges that include attacking civilians, conspiring with al Qaeda and murdering 2,976 people.

The judge said he would consider the legal mail issue on Tuesday after hearing testimony on another matter.

Reporting by Jane Sutton; Editing by Vicki Allen