- Associated Press - Thursday, October 11, 2012

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — An Army appeals court will hear arguments Thursday about an issue that has indefinitely postponed the murder trial for the suspect in the worst mass shooting on a U.S. military installation: his beard.

Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, charged in the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas, has appealed the trial judge’s order that he will be forcibly shaved before his court-martial unless he shaves himself. Maj. Hasan, a psychiatrist, argues that the order violates his religious rights.

The American-born Muslim has said he grew a beard because his faith requires it and that he believes dying without a beard is a sin.

Maj. Hasan, 42, faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole if convicted in the Nov. 5, 2009, attack that killed 13 people and wounded more than two dozen others at the sprawling Army post, which is about 130 miles southwest of Dallas. His court-martial was set for August, but all court proceedings in the case have been put on hold as the beard issue goes through the appeals process.

The U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals at Fort Belvoir in Virginia will hear oral arguments. The court also will hear from government attorneys who have said that forcibly shaving Maj. Hasan would not violate his religious rights and that the judge has the authority to enforce the Army rule prohibiting beards.

Maj. Hasan will not be at the hearing, Fort Hood officials said. It’s unclear when the court will make a decision, which could be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.

The Army has specific guidelines on forced shaving. A team of five military police officers restrains the inmate “with the reasonable force necessary,” and a medical professional is on hand in case of injuries. The shaving must be done with electric clippers and must be videotaped, according to Army rules.

Maj. Hasan would not be the first military defendant forcibly shaved. The Army has done it to five inmates since 2005, including one person who was forcibly shaved twice, according to the Army’s Office of the Chief of Staff.

The U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals said it also will consider whether the trial judge should be removed from Maj. Hasan’s case. Defense attorneys claim that the judge, Col. Gregory Gross, exceeded his authority by issuing the shaving order. His attorneys also want the court to overturn the six contempt of court rulings issued against Maj. Hasan for having a beard at pretrial hearings this summer, when he first showed up in court with facial hair.

Col. Gross has said that Maj. Hasan’s beard is a disruption and that defense attorneys have not proved that he is growing it for sincere religious reasons. Army prosecutors claim that Maj. Hasan grew the beard just before the trial was to start so that witnesses would not be able to identify him in court.