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San Antonio - A US military judge on Thursday ordered the Fort Hood massacre suspect, Army Major Nidal Hasan, to shave or be forcibly shaved, ruling that his beard is not covered by federal laws protecting religious freedom.
Colonel Gregory Gross ruled following a hearing that Hasan's attorneys failed to prove he has grown the beard, which he has worn since June, for religious reasons. Hasan, 41, has said he grew the beard in line with the beliefs of his Islamic faith, and that it is part of his free exercise of religion.
The San Antonio Express-News reported that Hasan's military defence lawyer, Lieutenant-Colonel Kris Poppe, said in court that the defendant had tried to plead guilty last month, a sign that he wanted to “to be accountable” for his actions.
Other media, including the New York Times, reported that Poppe told the court that Hasan has offered twice to plead guilty.
Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, faces 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder in the 2009 shootings at the sprawling Army base in central Texas.
“Bottom line is, the judge ordered him to be forcibly shaved,” Fort Hood spokesman Tyler Broadway said.
The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ruled last month that if Gross ordered Hasan to shave, the ruling could be appealed.
“It won't happen until the Army Criminal Court of Appeals or the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces makes a decision,” Broadway said of the shaving.
Hasan is accused of opening fire on November 5, 2009, at a deployment centre at Fort Hood, one of the largest US Army bases, killing 13 people.
Gross says Hasan must be in the courtroom during his court martial, but without a beard.
Gross said Army grooming regulations, which prohibit beards, override his religious exercise. Gross has repeatedly declared Hasan to be in contempt of court when he has appeared in court for pre-trial hearings with the beard, declaring it to be disruptive, and ordering him out of the courtroom.
If Hasan is forcibly shaven, it would not be a simple process, Broadway said. Army regulations are specific on how forced shaves can be carried out.
“Electric clippers will be used exclusively and the policy does allow for a senior correctional supervisor to administer the shave,” Broadway said, quoting Army policy.
The policy says that five military police officers would restrain the prisoner, that the procedure would be videotaped and that a person with medical training would be on hand to attend to any injuries.
Army correctional facilities have forcibly shaved a prisoner six times since 2005, Broadway said.
Hasan was preparing for military deployment to Afghanistan when he allegedly opened fire at Fort Hood. During the shooting, he was paralysed from the chest down by bullet wounds inflicted by civilian police officers.
Jeffrey Addicott, a former Army Judge Advocate and an expert on military law, said the beard issue is a delay tactic. A court martial for Hasan that had been set for August 20 was put on hold because of the matter.
“If you don't have the facts on your side, all you can do is engage in delay, delay, delay, and hope that the government will make some sort of a misstep that you can use on appeal,” he said. - Reuters