The military tribunal hearings against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged 9/11 conspirators have been stalled after the judge was flown out for emergency eye surgery.
At 7pm on Tuesday evening Parrella summoned defence and prosecution lawyers and informed them he was being flown out of the US military base in south-east Cuba back to the mainland for urgent medical treatment.
The judge was flown out on Wednesday, after his wife, Jennifer Parrella, tweeted overnight to accuse the military’s medical insurance provider, for a delay which she said threatened her husband’s sight in one eye.
Kevin Dwyer, a spokesman for the Defence Health Agency, said on Wednesday that “at no time” did the insurance company refuse to evacuate the patient.
“A lack of available aircraft briefly delayed the medical evacuation, but this situation has been rectified,” Dwyer said. “The Department will work to ensure future extraction delays are avoided.”
The Office of Military Commissions issued a brief statement that read: “Due to a medical issue impacting the military judge’s ability to work, the rest of the session is cancelled.”
Parrella was made judge in the 9/11 case last August, taking control of a case that has been dogged by false starts, procedural delays and controversy over the military commissions themselves. The defendants, accused of having orchestrated the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon killing nearly 3,000 people, were first charged in 2008. But the case is still in its preliminary phase, with a trial not expected to begin before 2020 at the earliest.
Much of the contention is testimony from the defendants obtained after long periods of torture in CIA “black sites” before they were flown to Guantánamo.
Parrella’s fitness to try the case is being challenged in federal court by defence lawyers for failing to disclose the extent of prior relationships with members of the prosecution team.
On Monday one of the defendants, Ramzi bin al-Shibh – a Yemeni accused of arranging for some of the hijackers to go to flight school in the US and helping finance the operation – challenged Parrella’s authority to preside over the court.
The defendant had raised a similar objection before, but on this occasion Parrella appeared rattled by the challenge and said his attitude “could potentially put everyone in this room’s safety in jeopardy” – a claim that surprised defence lawyers, who interpreted it as a threat to shackle the prisoner.
On the same day, defence lawyers threatened to boycott proceedings over what they said was aggressive FBI questioning of a legal assistant who had left Guantánamo in December.
On Tuesday, Parrella heard opposing arguments over whether the testimony of a former defence interpreter could be heard in open court. Defendants had claimed they had seen the interpreter at a “black site” and it was confirmed he had worked for the CIA. Defence lawyers have been seeking to question him on whether he had been CIA infiltrator. Parrella ruled that the hearing would have to be held behind closed doors.