updated 9/28/2006 4:53:49 PM ET 2006-09-28T20:53:49

His ankles chained to the floor of the hearing room, a Saudi detainee hoped to convince three U.S. military officers that he is not a danger to the United States, has no intelligence value and should be released from the Guantanamo Bay prison.

But in his one shot this year at getting out of here, the detainee could not produce letters from his family that he wanted to submit as evidence. They were seized by the military, along with thousands of other documents from detainees, as it investigates whether the suicides of three prisoners in June were assisted or encouraged.

While the letters on their own may not have convinced the panel that the detainee should be released, the hearing shows that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s confiscation of more than 1,100 pounds of documents is hampering detainees’ ability to confront accusations against them.

Correspondence between attorneys and their clients was among the documents seized. Lawyers for detainees say the military is violating attorney-client privilege and exacerbating the isolation of detainees by taking family pictures and other personal items.

A federal judge last week ordered an independent “filter team” to review the paperwork for evidence of complicity in the suicides. Irrelevant and protected documents must be returned to detainees, the judge ruled.

Defense attorneys are bitter.

“Attorneys working at Guantanamo have never believed they could tell clients with certainty that attorney-client communications are truly confidential,” lawyer Joshua Colangelo-Bryan told The Associated Press in an e-mail. “Now that the government has admitted to reviewing the legal materials of many detainees, it is obvious that these concerns were well founded.”

Patricia A. Bronte, another attorney, said detainees will now have a harder time trying to clear themselves.

“I believe that their ability to present evidence in their defense, already severely circumscribed, will be further harmed,” Bronte said. “It was a minor miracle for the detainee to even obtain some letters in support of his claim of innocence. For the NCIS to then confiscate the evidence from him ... just illustrates the unfairness of the whole proceeding.”

How hearing unfolded
At his appearance last week before the Administrative Review Board, the 22-year-old Saudi detainee — who is not allowed an attorney for the hearing and instead is assigned a military representative — told the presiding Marine colonel and two other board members that he had come empty-handed.

“I tried to bring the letters, but they took them away from me,” he told the officers sitting at a table some 10 feet away, an American flag thumb-tacked to the speckled-tile wall behind them. Reporters from The Associated Press and three other news organizations attended the hearing. Under media ground rules, the detainee and board participants could not be identified.

The hearing, held in a small room inside a trailer in the detention center, provides a rare glimpse into the issues the military wrestles with in recommending whether a detainee should continue to be held or sent away.

Most detainees have been skipping the annual hearings, officials said, reflecting skepticism that the encounters will result in their release.

About 460 detainees are currently at Guantanamo, including some held for more than four years. Only 10 have been charged with crimes, but about 315 others have been released or transferred to detention in their home countries, military officials said.

Bronte said it is was too early to judge how wide-reaching the effects of the document seizures are.

“Prisoners’ lawyers are not allowed to attend the ARB proceedings and can only find out about them through their clients,” she said. “Because of the restrictions on attorney-client communications, this can be weeks or months after the fact.”

Sitting on an office chair with his manacled hands resting in his lap, the bearded prisoner openly acknowledged he had gone to Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to fight the Northern Alliance. The alliance was battling Afghanistan’s hard-line Islamic rulers, the Taliban. But he insisted he never wanted to kill Americans.

“After Sept. 11, there was talk about the United States entering Afghanistan, but I never thought of fighting the United States,” the detainee, wearing baggy white pants and a white cotton shirt, said in a soft voice. White is reserved for compliant detainees; others wear orange.

Missile, Saudi base questioning
He acknowledged he receiving training in firing a pistol, assault rifle and a rocket-propelled grenade in the Arab-run Al Farouq training camp in Afghanistan. He said he also was once shown a surface-to-air missile in Afghanistan, but never received training on the SAM-7. He was captured near the Afghan-Pakistan border, according to military records.

U.S. interrogators, tasked with uncovering plots against the United States and determining if a detainee is a security risk, have repeatedly asked questions about surface-to-air missiles, the detainee said.

A clerk, reading from the record, said the detainee has denied knowing of any plans to attack U.S. aircraft at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. It was unclear why interrogators pursued that line of questioning. Parts of Administrative Review Board hearings and documents are classified, closed to detainees and the press.

The detainee said he wanted no more queries about surface-to-air missiles, believing that each new set of interrogators was not being told the topic has already been covered.

“Could you write that down, that I didn’t train in that weapon,” he asked the board president.

“I will personally tell the interrogators that you said this,” the colonel responded.

The Marine told the detainee the board tried to get his letters from the Navy investigators. He invited the detainee to recount for the record what the letters said.

The detainee said family members noted he was only 17 when he went to Afghanistan and was innocent. He declined to describe the letters in depth.

“I prefer to wait until you have the letters in your hands so you can see them with your own eyes,” he said.

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