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Accused Fort Hood shooter should shave beard, appeals court rules

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times –

BEAUMONT, Texas—An Army appeals court in Virginia ruled Thursday that a judge is entitled to order Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, accused in a 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas, to appear clean shaven at his upcoming court-martial.

The decision came the same day victims of the attack released a video calling for it to be deemed an act of terrorism, and for victims to be accorded greater recognition and benefits.

Hasan, 42, is an American-born Muslim who shaved during his time in the Army but began growing a beard in jail. He has said he believes he is close to death, and that shaving now would be a sin. Military prosecutors say Hasan grew the beard to make it more difficult for witnesses to identify him at trial.

If convicted in the Nov. 5, 2009, attack, Hasan faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole. Thirteen people were killed and more than two dozen wounded in the shooting at the sprawling Army post about 130 miles southwest of Dallas.

Hasan’s court-martial was initially scheduled for August, but legal wrangling over the beard has delayed proceedings indefinitely. Trial judge Col. Gregory Gross has repeatedly found Hasan in contempt for continuing to wear the beard, fining him $1,000 each time he’s appeared in court with it, forcing him to view the proceedings from a nearby room via closed-circuit video and eventually ordering him to be forcibly shaved, a military procedure that was effectively stayed pending Hasan’s appeal.

In September, the trial judge again ruled that Hasan’s beard is disruptive and a violation of Army grooming regulations, and ordered him forcibly shaved before his court-martial unless he shaves himself.

Hasan’s attorneys appealed, arguing that the order violates his religious rights.

The U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals at Fort Belvoir in Virginia heard oral arguments in the appeal last week and on Thursday upheld Gross’ finding that Hasan did not prove his beard was an “expression of a sincerely held religious belief.”

Senior Appellate Judge Louis Yob, writing for the majority of the seven-judge panel, said that even if Hasan did grow the beard for a “sincere religious reason,” compelling government interests also justified Gross’ order requiring Hasan to comply with Army grooming standards.

“Wearing of the beard denigrates the dignity, order and decorum of the court-martial and is disruptive,” Yob wrote, agreeing with Gross’ previous finding and noting that if Hasan sported the beard at trial it would “cast him in a negative light” in the eyes of the jury.

The appeals court also upheld Gross’ contempt proceedings against Hasan, including $6,000 in fines.

Hasan’s attorneys plan to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the highest appeals court within the military system, Fort Hood spokesmen said in a Thursday statement to the Los Angeles Times.

Also on Thursday, some of those wounded in the attack and relatives of those killed posted a video on YouTube saying they lack necessary benefits because the government hasn’t declared the shooting a terrorist attack.

A group of about 160 people affected by the shooting released the video, titled “He said Allahu Akbar: The Attack on Fort Hood,” in which numerous soldiers describe surviving the attack and express their frustration, saying those injured or killed deserve fair benefits and Purple Heart eligibility.

Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning, shot six times during the attack, appears in the video saying he’s upset that the Defense Department has referred to the shooting as workplace violence.

“It’s disgraceful that they don’t want to recognize the soldiers for their sacrifice. I mean, they were fighting a domestic enemy, they were killed and wounded by a domestic enemy, somebody who was there that day to kill soldiers and prevent them from deploying,” Manning says in the video. “If that’s not an act of terrorism, I don’t know what is.”

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