Alleged al Qaida commander fires legal team, paralyzing Guantánamo trial

Marine Lt. Col. Thomas Jasper, right, was one of the lawyers fired by Abd al Hadi al Iraqi. He’s shown here in a Pentagon handout photo from 2010.
Marine Lt. Col. Thomas Jasper, right, was one of the lawyers fired by Abd al Hadi al Iraqi. He’s shown here in a Pentagon handout photo from 2010. Department of Defense

An Iraqi prisoner accused of running al Qaida’s army in Afghanistan after 9/11 fired his two Pentagon-appointed lawyers Tuesday, indefinitely stalling the only war-court case that had been edging toward trial.

Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, in his 50s, did not give a specific reason for why he dismissed Marine Lt. Col. Thomas Jasper and Air Force Maj. Ben Stirk. In November, Jaspers and Stirk obtained a judicial restraining order forbidding female guards from touching Hadi when they transported him to and from court and legal meetings. The judge reversed himself and restored co-ed guard transport units in February.

The judge, Navy Capt. J.K. Waits, did not ask Hadi in open court why he rejected his lawyers. Jasper got to the case case a year ago, when Stirk was already on it. The Marine was part of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, a time when, according to Hadi’s charge sheet, the Iraqi was in Afghanistan directing al-Qaida forces.

“Your right to counsel does not include, according to case law, a ‘meaningful relationship’ between yourself and your counsel. You don’t have to like them,” the judge scolded the prisoner before releasing the two military lawyers from the case.

Hadi, in a white tunic and turban, replied in even tones that it was unfair to blame him for the delays in his case.

He arrived at Guantánamo, in 2007 and was arraigned in June 2014. He’s had three legal teams: His first defense lawyer, Marine Lt. Col. Sean Gleason, was removed from the case and reassigned to defend one of the detainees accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks. His second defense lawyer, Army Reserve Lt. Col. Chris Callen, was returned to civilian life, and then he got Jasper. Stirk served as deputy to both Callen and Jasper.

“I stayed here in Guantánamo for seven years and six months without trial, and then after that, my case was sent to court. It took a long time,” Hadi said.

“The charges were stated to me, and then they were changed, and then my meetings with my defense were spied on,” he added, without elaborating.

The war court’s new chief defense counsel, Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, said he has chosen Army Maj. Robert Kincaid, who has been working on the case, to try to develop an attorney-client relationship with Hadi. But Kincaid has yet to get a security clearance to meet Hadi. Baker also said he planned to add an American civilian lawyer to the case.

Hadi is accused of commanding al Qaida’s troops in Afghanistan that carried out war crimes after the 2001 U.S. invasion, crimes punishable by life in prison. He’s entitled to one U.S. military defense lawyer but gets no civilian lawyer, as defendants do in death-penalty cases.

At his arraignment he had also asked for an Iraqi or Afghan lawyer to help his defense team navigate trial preparation in those countries.

The disruption comes at a critical time. Prosecutors were preparing a so-called jurisdictional hearing, at the Hadi team’s request, to prove the prisoner’s an “alien unprivileged enemy belligerent.” It’s a threshold requirement for a trial at the war court George W. Bush created before Hadi’s capture and Barack Obama reformed after Hadi got to the U.S. Navy base from a secret CIA prison.

Prosecutors planned to call witnesses for a hearing, a mini-trial of sort, but first defense lawyers were challenging the admissibility of some of the evidence.

With no legal defense team now in place, the judge adjourned the hearing “until a time to be determined based on the detailing of counsel for this accused.”

Tuesday’s hearing lasted one hour, the shortest by far in the case. The Pentagon mounted the trip on Monday and is returning staff to the Washington, D.C., area on Wednesday. The Pentagon had no estimate for the cost of the session. In a 2012 affidavit, the bureaucrat responsible for the trips said each one-way flight costs $90,000.

There are only two other cases at the war court, and both are bogged down in delays. The Sept. 11 case has been derailed for months on a potential conflict-of-interest question that arose after the disclosure that FBI teams were investigating defense team members for still unknown reasons. Meanwhile, the judge in the USS Cole bombing case has frozen the proceedings pending a prosecution appeal to a Pentagon panel in Washington, D.C., of two of the judge’s rulings.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg