Pentagon lawyer asks an end to Guantanamo trials now

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — Citing politics and torture, the Pentagon's chief defense counsel for war crimes issued an urgent appeal on Friday to a top Bush administration official to withdraw all charges against alleged terrorists here.

''The perception of pervasive torture now saddles the incoming Administration and its efforts to set these proceedings on a just course,'' Air Force Col. Peter Masciola wrote a former military appeals judge, Susan J. Crawford, known as the Convening Authority for Military Commissions.

Masciola noted that the Obama administration intends to revise the Guantanamo war court and urged Crawford to halt next week's hearings before the Pentagon put dozens of witnesses, judges, reporters, attorneys and other court personnel onto a flight from Andrews Air Force Base on Saturday.

Next week, two military judges have scheduled hearings.

Army Col. Stephen Henley is hearing motions in the case of five men accused of conspiring in the mass murder in nearly 3,000 people in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, notably alleged al Qaeda kingpin Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Army Col. Patrick Parish is hearing motions to suppress evidence ahead of the Jan. 26 trial of Canadian ''child soldier'' Omar Khadr.

A military commissions spokeswoman, Air Force Lt. Col. Ann Knabe, said on Friday evening that Crawford was reviewing the letter.

Masciola noted that the hearings were scheduled to start Monday: ``Ironically, that date is also Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day that should be set aside as a celebration of freedom and justice.''

A day earlier, attorney general nominee Eric Holder told a Senate confirmation hearing that the Obama administration would review war court prosecutions in search of a new approach.

Obama prefers traditional criminal trials and courts martial, and Holder said that, were the new government to use commissions, they would have to be ``substantially revamped to provide the due process rights that I think are consistent with who we are as Americans.''

Crawford created a firestorm of controversy by telling The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, in an article published Wednesday, that she vetoed the terror prosecution Guantánamo captive Mohammed Qahtani, suspected of seeking to join the 9/11 hijackers squads, because ``we tortured him.''

Lawyers for the 9/11 accused, as well as a suspected USS Cole bomber, argue that their clients were likewise tortured. The CIA waterboarded two of them, using a technique known as ''water torture,'' to break them. Henley has ruled that evidence in another case, a young Afghan named Mohammed Jawad, was derived through torture.

Masciola wrote Crawford that canceling the cases, before trial, meaning they could be brought later, was the ``the legally and morally correct course.''

''It is increasingly clear president-elect Obama intends to stay commission prosecutions upon assuming office,'' Masciola wrote. 'Withdrawing the referrals will maximize the new president's options and permit a far more orderly and consistent treatment of all the accuseds' cases.''

Also Friday, a federal judge in Washington ordered the prison camps to let a forensic psychologist, Xavier Amador, examine 9/11 accused co-conspirator Ramzi bin al Shibh. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan did not agree with defense attorneys that Bin al Shibh's mental health competency hearing should be halted on Monday, but did order that Amador get access on Friday.

Amador, who has been an expert in the Unabomber and Zacarias Moussaoui cases, was at the base to testify at Monday's hearings.

The issue is coming to a head as the prison camps housing 250 ''enemy combatants,'' some held for more than seven years, are roiling with discontent.

As of Friday, 46 of the foreign captives had refusing to eat for more than a week in what Navy Cmdr. Pauline Storum cast as a choreographed protest timed for the seventh anniversary of the detention center and the change in White House administrations.

Of them, 33 alleged terrorists were being fed liquid nourishment through tubes tethered up their noses and down the backs of their throats because medical staff and the prison camps' commander had concluded it was necessary to keep them healthy.