Conflict of interest issues throw wrench in hearing for alleged war criminal

By Taylor Hall, Medill News Service  |  July 22, 2015 at 5:53 PM
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GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, CUBA, July 22 (UPI) -- Military court hearings ground to an indefinite halt Wednesday after an Iraqi prisoner accused of war crimes petitioned for a new lawyer, citing conflict of interest issues.

At the start of Wednesday's proceedings, the military judge, Navy Capt. J.K. Wait asked Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, accused of leading violent attacks as a senior al-Qaida commander in 2003, whether he wanted to be represented by his current defense counsel, Marine Lt. Col. Tom Jasper and Air Force Maj. Ben Stirk. Hadi, dressed in traditional white garb, responded: "Today, yes."

But less than one hour later, the Iraqi prisoner had changed his tune.

"I don't want to confer with Jasper or Stirk about this at least temporarily until I have an option for an independent counsel. I don't want them to represent me at this time," al Hadi said through his translator.

The conflict of interest issue and representation for Hadi emerged Sunday, when the lead government prosecutor, Army Lt. Col. David Long, turned over evidence of jailhouse conversations in 2007 between Hadi and a Sept. 11 defendant also imprisoned at Guantanamo, Mustafa al Hawsawi. The prosecution apparently intended to include information from the conversation between Hadi and Hawsawi to prove Hadi was an "unprivileged enemy belligerent."

But Hawsawi and Hadi, it turns out, have a defense lawyer in common -- Marine Lt. Col. Sean Gleason.

Jasper, the lead military defense attorney, said Gleason, previously detailed to Hadi's defense team, was not properly released by Hadi from his case.

"With regard to Gleason, it was only today I realized he's still working in my case. And that was based on what I heard from Jasper today. Before that I had the wrong information," Hadi said in court. "I've been working with Jasper based on the wrong information."

Jasper said this posed critical conflict of interest issues that could complicate future proceedings for the entire defense team.

"We're flying by the seat of our pants trying to figure out our ethical obligations regarding the ethical representation of Hadi," Jasper said.

Hadi has asked for a civilian lawyer, but is not automatically entitled to one under the rules for military commissions because his is not a capital case. In the hearing Wednesday, Hadi spoke directly to the military judge, Wait, expressing concerns over information shared with Gleason and fair representation by current defense counsel.

"I understand the privileged relationship between attorney and client. But there's an important issue. Attorney Gleason has lots of information concerning me. I don't know if he's gong to use this information in the future, for me or against me," Hadi said.

"Right now I have a very disturbed relationship with my attorneys. I can give you many examples," he added.

One of the military prosecutors, Navy Lt. Col. Vaughn Spencer, challenged the extent of the conflict around the conversations, which took place before either Hadi or Hawsawi had legal representation or faced any charges. But Wait ruled to delay the hearings until Hadi had a chance to speak with Gleason about conflict issues that could adversely affect his case.

"The issue of a potential conflict with Gleason needs to be resolved," Wait said. "The commission directs Jasper to contact Gleason to consult with Hadi. If you want independent counsel, that's your prerogative."

Wait directed the government prosecutors to keep the courts informed on the status of meetings between Gleason with Hadi and Hawsawi.

Hadi has temporarily dismissed Jasper and Stirk, and Wait recessed the military hearings indefinitely until Gleason, who was not present at Guantanamo this week, can be consulted.

Prosecutor Navy Lt. Col. Vaughn Spencer told the military judge Gleason is an active duty Marine and could be contacted "as quickly as you direct us."

Until then, military court proceedings in Guantanamo will remain on hold.

"Regrettably, we're in a little bit of a limbo," Wait said.

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