* Defendants are accused of plotting 9/11 attacks
* Harsh pretrial treatment could mitigate their sentence
By Jane Sutton
GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba, Jan 29 (Reuters) - U .S. lawyers defending the Guantanamo prisoners accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks on Tuesday sought permission to spend 48 hours in the top-secret prison where the alleged al Qaeda conspirators have awaited trial for more than six years.
"You want to sleep with your client?" Army tribunal judge Colonel James Pohl asked one of the lawyers during a hearing, provoking snickers in the courtroom at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba.
Pohl said he had not intended to be flippant but was trying to pin down whether the military and civilian defense lawyers were asking to sleep on cots in their clients' cells. The five defendants, who skipped their pretrial hearing on Tuesday, are accused of training and aiding the hijackers who are accused of killing 2,976 people in the United States in 2001.
They are housed in "Camp 7," a maximum-security detention facility reserved for captives previously held in secret CIA prisons overseas. They are segregated from the general prisoner population in the facility, whose very existence was not publicly acknowledged until more than a year after their transfer to Guantanamo in 2006.
Navy Commander Walter Ruiz, a defense attorney for alleged al Qaeda money courier Mustafa al Hawsawi, said a two-day visit was needed to get an intimate understanding of the conditions of confinement.
Defense lawyers said harsh conditions could constitute illegal pretrial punishment, a potentially mitigating factor that could spare the defendants from the death penalty if they are convicted of war crimes that include terrorism, hijacking and attacking civilians. They want a 48-hour visit, plus follow-up visits every six months.
Prosecutors said that would be unduly disruptive to Camp 7 and proposed instead that the defense lawyers be allowed a one-time visit, during which they would not be allowed to speak to anyone except the personnel conducting the tour.
The offer was ridiculed by Navy Commander Kevin Bogucki, who represents Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni defendant accused of helping the hijackers enroll in flight training schools.
"It calls to mind the jungle cruise at Disneyland," Bogucki said, referring to the theme park ride where visitors are loaded onto boats that glide past elephants that are in fact mechanical imitations programmed to spout water on cue.
Debate on the matter continued on Tuesday in pretrial hearings scheduled to last through Thursday at the Guantanamo navy base. (Editing by Tom Brown and Cynthia Osterman)