MIAMI — A military judge at the Guantanamo Bay detention center ruled Wednesday that a senior legal official in charge of the defense for terrorism suspects should be held in contempt of court in a dispute that has disrupted court proceedings at the base.
Air Force Col. Vance Spath issued the ruling against Marine Corps Brig. Gen. John Baker at a hearing at the U.S. base in Cuba.
Spath said Baker should be confined to his quarters for 21 days and fined $1,000 for releasing three defense lawyers in a terrorism case without the judge’s authorization. A senior Pentagon legal official known as the convening authority must uphold the ruling before it becomes official and Baker is expected to challenge it.
Baker was led out of the courtroom to the shock of colleagues.
“It’s incredibly outrageous. It’s disgusting,” said Michel Paradis, a lawyer with the Pentagon’s Military Commission Defense Organization. “This Air Force colonel without any legal authority is arresting the chief defense counsel and sending him to the brig over what is in essence an administration authority dispute.”
A Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson, said that the judge acted under rules allowing him to ensure military commission proceedings are “conducted in a fair and orderly manner” and that the convening authority was expected to decide on the sentence in the coming days.
The dispute arose during the pretrial phase in the case of Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi and alleged senior member of al-Qaida who is accused of planning the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 crew members. He could get the death penalty if convicted.
Baker excused three defense attorneys assigned by the Pentagon to defend al-Nashiri on ethical issues that arose out of what they said was a breach of the attorney-client privilege. Officials have not disclosed the details of the allege breach, saying the information is classified.
The decision by the Marine general disrupted proceedings at the base scheduled for this week because the remaining defense lawyer said he lacked the experience necessary to carry on. Spath had declined to postpone the hearing.
Lawyers for the Military Commission Defense Organization have asked a judge in Washington to issue an emergency order halting the hearing this week until the issue is resolved.