Pandemic-Related Sickness at Guantanamo Forces Cancellation of Sept. 11 Hearing

The judge scrapped the hearing “in an abundance of caution” on the last day of the first session of hearings for the Sept. 11, 2001 case during the pandemic.


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Pandemic-related illness forces cancellation of Sept. 11 hearing at Guantanamo.

Camp Justice, where the Guantanamo military commissions are held, at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba on September 7.Credit…Paul Handley/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Sept. 17, 2021Updated 1:06 p.m. ET

FORT MEADE, Md. — A military judge overseeing the Sept. 11, 2001 case abruptly canceled a hearing on Friday at Guantanamo Bay because of illness related to the coronavirus pandemic, ending this month’s pretrial session a day early.

Lawyers, the defendants and the judge, Col. Matthew N. McCall of the Air Force, were due in court Friday morning for the final day of arguments in a two-week hearing in the case when a clerk sent word, moments before it was to begin at 9 a.m., that the judge had canceled it “in light of recent developments” related to Covid-19 and “in an abundance of caution.”

At least one of the trial participants, a senior defense lawyer, was in quarantine Friday morning and was awaiting test results after developing a symptom of the virus. Separately, a journalist who returned to the United States from Guantanamo on Sunday discovered on Thursday that he had been infected with the virus. Both men were fully vaccinated, although their names were not released to the public.

The cancellation came on what was to be the final day of the first set of hearings amid the coronavirus pandemic in the long stalled death-penalty case that accuses Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other men of conspiring in the hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon.

Mr. Mohammed and three of the defendants were already at the court compound on Friday when the judge decided to cancel the hearing. They were notified that they would not be returned to the general population at the prison until they were tested for the virus as well, according to people inside the court who overheard the advisory.

The Pentagon currently has 39 detainees at Guantanamo, spread across two prison facilities. A few have refused the vaccination.

The naval base in Cuba, with about 6,000 residents and a small hospital, has so far been able to avoid a major coronavirus outbreak through isolation, testing and quarantines. Residents have confirmed two known cases on base in September, including a fully vaccinated schoolteacher who tested positive on his return to Guantanamo the week of Sept. 6.

Some court observers and participants went to the base hospital Friday for testing and then self-quarantined in guest quarters at the base awaiting the results. In other instances, health officials in full protective gear knocked on doors at the quarters and tested some people at their rooms.

Colonel McCall, the judge, is new to the case. He said on Monday that the trial would not begin for at least a year. He had set aside Friday morning to hear arguments over ongoing requests by defense lawyers’ for information about the defendants treatment in C.I.A. custody from 2002 to 2006.

In one request, lawyers for the defendant Ramzi bin al-Shibh were asking the judge to order the government to provide details about the prisoner’s forced shaving while held by the C.I.A. and later at Guantanamo in 2007. Prosecutors have acknowledged that “forced shaving occurred” in January 2007, but declined to name those who did it.

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