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Sept. 11 judge rules on censor but little else

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — The second round of pretrial hearings in the Sept. 11 terrorism case sputtered to a close on Thursday with the judge ordering the government to remove censorship equipment from the courtroom at the us base in Cuba but little progress on some fundamental legal issues that must be resolved before the long-stalled case can go to trial.

Army Colonel James Pohl ordered an undisclosed government agency to disconnect equipment it used to unilaterally cut the courtroom sound system to prevent the release of classified information to spectators. His abrupt order came toward the close of a four-day hearing devoted largely to procedural matters.

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The existence of a previously unknown government censor may have created a new delay, as the defense filed an emergency motion to halt proceedings until it can be assured that officials are not surreptitiously monitoring their communications with the defendants, who are facing death penalty charges for their alleged roles planning and aiding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Pohl did not immediately rule on the defense request, but said he would hear arguments on the motion at the start of the next session, scheduled to start Feb. 11 at the base.

Five Guantanamo Bay prisoners, including self-proclaimed mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, are being tried on charges that include murder and terrorism in a special military tribunal for wartime offenses that includes elements of a courtmartial and civilian criminal court. They could get the death penalty if convicted.

The judge heard arguments on 15 motions and ruled on six. But there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, more before any trial gets under way. The chief prosecutor, Army Brigadier General Mark Martins, said it will take ‘‘many, many months’’ to resolve the issues, given that the case involves the most extensive criminal investigation in US history.

‘‘Although it is wearying, it is necessary that we do this as we move toward judgment that it is in accordance with our values,’’ Martins said. ‘‘And that’s what we are going to do.’’

The grinding pace and defense challenges were hard to take for Matthew Sellito, whose 23-year-old son, also named Matthew, was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.

‘‘I don’t think there are too many countries in our world today [where they] would be given the chance that they are being given today in our country,’’ said Sellito, who lives in Naples, Fla.

‘‘To hear the defense attorneys saying that they are being treated unfairly, and that they are not being given a fair trial, it hurts,’’ he added. ‘‘It hurts not only because my son was murdered but because our country was attacked.’’

The judge said in ruling on the censor that only he has the authority to decide when to close a hearing or when spectators should be prevented from hearing testimony. He ordered the government to disconnect any equipment that would enable officials to unilaterally cut the sound feed in the courtroom.

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