updated 12/3/2004 6:50:31 PM ET 2004-12-03T23:50:31

An Army appeals court stopped a key hearing Friday for three soldiers charged with killing an Iraqi general during an interrogation and ordered the military to explain why the proceedings had been closed to the public.

The Army Court of Appeals granted an emergency stay sought by The Denver Post on the second day of the hearing at Fort Carson, an Army post 70 miles south of here.

On Thursday, the hearing officer, Capt. Robert Ayers, closed all of the proceedings to the public, citing national security. He also said publicity might jeopardize the safety of the defendants, some of whom are assigned to military intelligence units.

The appeals court gave Ayers 10 days to show why non-classified parts of the hearing should not be open.

Officials at Fort Carson did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

In all, four soldiers are charged with murder and dereliction of duty in the death of Iraqi Air Force Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, who investigators say was suffocated last year. The soldiers could get life in prison without parole if convicted.

The hearing is being held to determine whether the soldiers should stand trial.

Legal analysts said it was extremely rare for a military preliminary hearing to be closed to the public, and appeals courts frown on such decisions.

Media lawyer Steve Zansberg had asked Ayers to close only parts of the hearing that could threaten national security.

“This is information the American people are profoundly and legitimately interested in knowing,” he said. He said many details of the death had already been publicized.

The soldiers charged are Chief Warrant Officers Jefferson Williams and Lewis Welshofer Jr., Sgt. 1st Class William Sommer and Spc. Jerry Loper. Welshofer’s hearing will be held later.

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