By Jane Sutton
GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The Guantanamo war crimes tribunal ended a pretrial hearing for a prisoner accused of directing the deadly bombing of a U.S. warship with a closed 78-minute session on Friday that excluded the defendant.
"There was a secret session. That's all I can say," defense attorney Rick Kammen told journalists at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base.
Saudi defendant Abd al Rahim al Nashiri is accused of sending suicide bombers to ram a boat full of explosives into the hull of the USS Cole off Yemen in 2000, killing 17 U.S. sailors and wounding 37.
The alleged al Qaeda chieftain is also accused of directing a similar attack that killed a Bulgarian crewman aboard a French oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden in 2002.
Nashiri will hear all the evidence presented to the military jury when his death penalty case goes to trial, prosecutors said. But the judge banished the defendant and the public from Friday's pretrial session after finding there could be grave damage to U.S. national security if matters discussed at the hearing were made public.
Closed sessions have been held before in the tribunals set up to try non-U.S. prisoners on terrorism charges outside the regular military and civilian courts, but Friday's session was the first to exclude the defendant since the Obama administration revised the tribunals in 2009.
The chief prosecutor, Brigadier General Mark Martins, said the closed hearing involved "legal issues regarding classified information with imperative national security interests."
Nashiri's lawyers had argued that his exclusion would jeopardize his right to a fair trial.
"Real justice occurs in the sunshine, not in secret," said Kammen, a civilian attorney who wears tiny kangaroo lapel pins to illustrate his belief that the Guantanamo tribunals are a kangaroo court.
Martins said Nashiri's rights were protected because his lawyers were at the hearing. He said the hearing lasted 78 minutes and that a redacted transcript would be made public.
Classified material in the case includes details of Nashiri's time in CIA prisons, where the agency has acknowledged he was threatened with a gun and power drill and subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding.
Friday's session was preceded by three days of hearings to debate issues such as whether Nashiri has a right to confront accusers who gave statements in Yemen about 12 years ago. FBI agents are expected to read their statements into the court record, Kammen said.
Nashiri sat in the courtroom during those hearings, swiveling in his chair and listening through earphones to Arabic-English interpreters, as the lawyers debated issues such as whether terrorism was a stand-alone crime or a broad category of crimes, and whether tribunal rules unfairly allowed prosecutors to veto defense requests for witnesses.
The judge did not immediately rule on either of those issues.
Prosecutors want Nashiri's trial to start in February 2014, and the defense says it will not be ready until 2015.
The court will reconvene on Monday for five days of pretrial hearings in the death penalty case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other prisoners accused of plotting the September 11, 2001, hijacked plane attacks on the United States that killed 2,976 people.
(Editing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Peter Cooney)