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Spy Suspect Seeks Access to Detainees

An airman's lawyers believe 16 inmates in Cuba can help prove he was not trying to turn over classified data to Syria. The U.S. says no.

November 12, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Attorneys for accused Air Force spy Ahmad I. Al-Halabi are demanding access to 16 detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who they believe can help show the senior airman was not trying to turn over classified material from the prison to the government of Syria.

Although the U.S. government has refused to accommodate the request to interview the detainees, defense attorneys may file an appeal with the military court, said Donald Rehkopf Jr., one of the lawyers representing Al-Halabi, who was a translator at the prison.

Rehkopf said the issue of detainee interviews came up last week when a fellow defense attorney was gathering information at the Camp Delta prison and Michael Boehman, the staff judge advocate at the facility, asked for a list of "precisely who [attorneys] would like to talk to."

But when a list was provided, Rehkopf said, the military quickly refused to make any detainees available. "And they gave us no grounds for their refusal," Rehkopf added.

Military authorities declined to discuss any aspect of the case, noting that the Pentagon had refused to acknowledge any of the names of the 660 detainees, mostly suspected of being Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

The government's refusal mirrors developments in another high-profile terror-related case. Prosecutors in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged Sept. 11 conspirator, also have refused to allow him and his attorneys access to suspected terror detainees, forcing the government to defend its position at the risk of having the death penalty and crucial Sept. 11 evidence stricken from the case.

In the Al-Halabi matter, the list provided by the defense shows that his attorneys are seeking a group of English-speaking detainees, many of whom have become high-profile prisoners. Four of the 16 detainees are among petitioners in a legal challenge that the Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear into whether the Bush administration can legally continue to hold detainees without granting them due process under the law.

Three of the detainees have reportedly been targeted for the first round of military tribunals at Camp Delta. Another allegedly served as a translator for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The four involved in the high court challenge are Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, both British subjects, and Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks, both Australians.

Their lawyers have said that Rasul, Iqbal and Hicks were in Pakistan for personal reasons when they were seized during the war with Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. Habib, the lawyers said, was living in Afghanistan and may have joined the Taliban before he was captured.

The three detainees who reportedly have been targeted for tribunals have been identified by their governments as Hicks, as well as Feroz Abassi and Moazzam Begg, who are both British subjects. Begg is the detainee whom sources have identified as Bin Laden's translator.

Rehkopf declined to discuss why the defense team wants to talk with the 16 individuals. He would not say whether Al-Halabi translated some of their interrogations, or whether he allegedly smuggled material concerning them out of the prison.

But Rehkopf said Al-Halabi did not personally give his legal team the names of the 16 detainees to interview.

"Why we want them is classified," Rehkopf said. "But there is a common thread. For every 10 interviews you do, you get a nugget of information. That's the lot of a defense attorney. You keep digging."

Al-Halabi was arrested July 23 after flying from Cuba to a naval air station in Jacksonville, Fla. A Syrian native who grew up in Detroit, he had served as a translator at Camp Delta for nine months and was based at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento.

It is there that he will face a court-martial on 20 charges, including allegations that he sought to deliver highly classified prison data to the government of Syria.

His lawyers have denied the allegations, and Al-Halabi has pleaded not guilty. He maintains that he was on the way to Syria to marry his fiancee, and that he was not part of a spy ring at the prison where the detainees are being held.

An Army chaplain and a civilian translator who were at Guantanamo Bay have also been arrested, but Al-Halabi's case, if proven, would by far represent the most severe breach of security at the installation.

Al-Halabi's lawyers have complained about his treatment after his arrest, saying the military broke its own rules on how not to treat the Camp Delta detainees. Rehkopf, in a letter to Air Force officials, said Al-Halabi was "interrogated for a full day" immediately after his arrest. Then denied a chance to sleep, shower, shave "or even to change his underwear," he was "flown to California and thrown into a county jail."

Rehkopf said: "He again was denied basic humanitarian considerations of sleep, showering, shaving and clean clothes ... and was brought to his pretrial confinement hearing in a dazed, confused and dirty condition -- and without his uniform."

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