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Boycott row halts Guantanamo court

A dispute over whether a defendant must be present during a military tribunal halted proceedings in the case of a Guantanamo prisoner accused over the deadly attack on the USS Cole navy destroyer.

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri decided to boycott the pre-trial motions hearing to protest at the use of belly chains to move him from his cell at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

Prosecutors wanted the 47-year-old prisoner brought to court to explain his reasoning on the record before any discussion of other motions in the case. The defence objected, saying any use of force could traumatise a man who they say was tortured in US custody.

Al-Nashiri faces charges that include terrorism and murder in a special tribunal for wartime offences known as a military commission for allegedly orchestrating the bombing of the USS Cole, an attack that killed 17 sailors and wounded 37. He is also accused of setting up attacks on two other vessels and could get the death penalty if convicted.

The judge, army colonel James Pohl, decided after more than 90 minutes of debate that al-Nashiri must come to court.

"Tomorrow, weather permitting, your client is coming," Col Pohl said on Tuesday, referring to Tropical Storm Sandy, which was forecast to grow into a hurricane and strike eastern Cuba, potentially near the US base early tomorrow. The judge then adjourned the hearing for the day.

US officials had considered cancelling the remainder of this week's pre-trial hearing, but had decided to go forward, said Kelly Wirfel, a spokesman for the US Navy base.

The military was forced to postpone hearings and evacuate officials and visitors who came to Guantanamo for proceedings in August because of Tropical Storm Isaac.

Whether a defendant must attend sessions of the tribunal has been a recurring theme with al-Nashiri, who is accused of orchestrating the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, as well as in the case of five Guantanamo prisoners charged over the September 11 2001 attacks.

Col Pohl, who presides over both cases, has previously ruled that defendants have a right to be absent from pre-trial proceedings just as they have a right to be present for them. He has not said yet whether they must attend their actual trials, which in both cases are not expected to start for at least a year. He has signalled he will probably require them to be in court once a jury is convened.

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