USS Cole bombing suspect makes no plea in hearing

Story highlights

  • The trial could take place a year from now, lawyers agreed
  • Al-Nashiri is believed to have been behind the USS Cole attack
  • His preliminary hearing took place at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
The suspected mastermind behind the bombing of the USS Cole -- the 2000 attack that took the lives of 17 American sailors -- stepped into public view Wednesday inside a military commission courtroom at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay Cuba.
Abd al-Rahim Hussayn Muhammad al-Nashiri did not enter a plea in his arraignment after the charges were read.
No trial date has been officially set. But inside the courtroom the prosecution, after calling for a trial in early February, appeared to compromise with the defense to push it out exactly a year, to November 9, 2011.
Later, outside the courtroom, defense attorney Richard Kammen predicted it could be much later than than, pointing to the usual schedule of death penalty trials in civilian courts, with delays running two-and-a-half or three years.
Al-Nashiri dropped from sight after his capture in 2002 and subsequent detention -- first in secret facilities overseas and then at Guantanamo. When he was led into the courtroom he appeared at ease, smiling occasionally at his lawyers and the judge. He was clean-shaven and sat slumped in his chair at the end of the defense table. He was not wearing restraints, but four military guards sat nearby.
Al-Nashiri is charged with killing 17 American sailors in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. The attack left dozens of others were injured and a gaping hole was blown into the side of the warship.
Officially, the charges against him include "murder in violation of the law of war, attempted murder in violation of the law of war, terrorism, conspiracy, intentionally causing serious bodily injury, attacking civilians, attacking civilian objects, and hazarding a vessel," according to the military commission's website.
The case will turn the international spotlight back on the United States' treatment of some of its most notorious terror suspects and on the latest updates to military commission procedures. And it's seen as test of those procedures prior to placing the conspirators in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on trial.
In their arguments at the preliminary hearing, members of al-Nashiri's defense team suggested that the torture of their client during his detention and the delay in bringing the case to trial would be a central part of their case. Al-Nashiri was waterboarded and threatened with a power drill during interrogations, according to U.S. documents and official accounts.
Civilian defense lawyer Richard Kammen questioned at length the presiding officer of the commission, Army Col. James Pohl, about his knowledge of the case, his personal views on the potential death penalty in the case -- the first for a military commission -- and whether the United States had "sacrificed its moral authority" by allowing torture.
Pohl refused to answer some of the defense questions, but insisted he would conduct a fair trial according to the law and legal precedents. "The rules are the rules," Pohl said. "I am a simple guy. I just follow what the rules say."
Pohl denied a defense motion seeking to clarify whether al-Nashiri would continue to be held at Guantanamo even if he was acquitted of the murder and terrorism charges against him. The defense claims that information would have an impact on how the panel of military officers -- which will serve as a jury in the case -- are selected and reach a verdict.
The Saudi-born al-Nashiri, 46, wore a loose white tunic supplied by the Guantanamo detention facility. Pohl told al Nashiri he could choose to appear in court wearing civilian clothes.
The judge also asked al-Nashiri if he spoke English. He answered that he spoke Arabic and would rely on the simultaneous translation of the proceedings he receives through his headset. But he also appeared to understand and speak some English, at one point telling the judge "one minute" as he leaned over to talk to his lawyers.
"Take all the time you need to talk it over, to understand my questions," Pohl said.
Family members of the USS Cole victims watched the proceedings from the spectator gallery at the back of the courtroom at Guantanamo, as well as through a special closed-circuit feed set up for them at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia.
A television feed also was set up at the base movie theater at Fort Meade, between Washington and Baltimore, where the sign outside advertised adult tickets for the film "Dolphin Tales" at $4.50.
In a last-minute surprise, the Defense Department said members of the public, in addition to journalists, could watch the closed-circuit proceedings at Fort Meade. That announcement was made so late and so quietly on the new military commission website, www.mc.mil, that few people seemed to take notice or know how to request military permission and escort to the theater. The new website and the remote viewing of the proceedings at Norfolk and Fort Meade are part of an effort by the military commission to be more transparent.
In addition to more than a dozen journalists watching at Fort Meade, as well as military officers and defense department officials, there was only one member of the public. Aisha Ghani is studying military commissions as part of her work on her Ph.D. at Stanford University.
All recording and photography of the proceedings was banned, both at Guantanamo and at the remote locations. The Defense Department has the ability to blank out the closed-circuit audio, with a 40-second delay switch, to protect secrets.
At one point Wednesday the transmission fell silent amidst a courtroom discussion over a defense motion that their mail communication be protected from inspection by the prosecution or detention authorities. But it was unclear whether that interruption was a technical glitch or an effort to protect classified information.
The arraignment lasted four hours, and the judge hinted that another hearing would take place in January.
In a question-and-answer session with journalists in Guantanamo, family members of sailors killed in the USS Cole bombing said they were glad the case was moving forward.
"This arraignment has got us started on the right track," Saundra Flanagan said, adding that she wanted al-Nashiri to pay for the lives he took. "So many lives have been changed permanently, forever."
John Clodfelter told how his son, who was killed in the bombing, was so close to the blast that he was the first to die and the last victim to be found. "I think he (al-Nashiri) needs to get the death penalty ... if not worse," Clodfelter said. "The only way (terrorists) are going to stop is if we make them stop."
He said he was glad to finally see the man accused of murdering his son.
"When we first saw him coming into the courtroom, he was just a pitiful looking person. I wanted to be able to face him, face to face, if nothing else to let him he hadn't got away with it."
Defense lawyer Kammen said the trial would be expensive. "If the government wants to do this fairly, the defense costs will be millions," Kammen predicted.
Kammen said he is restricted in discussing al-Nashiri since his client's statements court are considered top secret. About whether al-Nashiri had remorse, Kammen said, "We are not allowed to tell you what he has said. His responses are appropriate to the situation. This is not a person, in our view, without heart or feeling."