GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- A reputed al Qaida chieftain emerged from the shadows of CIA confinement and interrogation Wednesday to face death-penalty charges as the alleged engineer of the 2000 USS Cole bombing, and got a minimum one-year delay until his murder and terror trial date.
Seventeen American crewmembers were killed in the suicide attack a decade ago off Yemen. Some of the slain sailors’ families and a surviving supply officer watched stoically from a glass booth as Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 46, appeared in the white prison camp uniform of a cooperative Guantánamo captive.
The self-described former Saudi millionaire merchant from Mecca was clean-shaven and round-faced, stocky and smiling under questioning from the Army judge on whether he understood the Arabic-English translation.
Asked whether he accepted the services of his Pentagon-paid defense team, who argued the case was too tainted by torture to go forward, Nashiri replied: “At this moment these lawyers are doing the right job.”
It was the public’s first look at the man who was waterboarded in CIA custody and interrogated with a revving drill and cocked gun near his head.
It’s also the first time the Obama administration is seeking the death penalty from a military commission. The jury of 12 U.S. military officers will be chosen at the soonest Nov. 9, 2012 to hear the case of the captive whom the Bush White House branded Osama bin Laden’s chief of Arabian Gulf terror operations.
At one point, Nashiri turned to the soundproofed spectators gallery at the opposite end of the basketball-court-sized tribunal chamber and waved. Defense attorney Richard Kammen said his client was glad the process had begun after years and was happy to be in a space as large as the courtroom after years of confinement in rooms no bigger than an 8-by-12-foot cell.
“He seemed cocky to me,” said John Clodfelter, whose 21-year-old sailor son Kenneth was killed in the attack.
The dad, a military veteran from Mechanicsville, Va., called the court appearance “a long time coming.”’ He said he hoped the captive got the death penalty. “Hopefully when everything’s said and done we will have some closure with it.”
Nashiri was captured in Dubai in October 2002, but instead of being charged then, CIA operatives whisked him off to a series of overseas secret “black sites” where he was subjected to interrogations that included mock executions, threats to his family and simulated drowning.
In a series of questions directed at the judge, Army Col. James Pohl, Kammen made clear that he intends to use those harsh techniques as he argues against a death sentence for Nashiri. "Is torture a mitigating factor?" Kammen asked, to which Pohl responded that "I'll ask you to answer that question" when it is time to argue the sentence.
Kammen also asked Pohl if he would fulfill his obligation under international treaty to report to "outside authorities" evidence that Nashiri's "torture" was arranged by high public officials, doctors, psychiatrists and lawyers. "I will comply with the law," Pohl responded.
The hearing was an arraignment — a formal presentation of charges, military-style, meaning the accused did not enter plea of innocence or guilt. Instead, his lawyers launched into the first round of what could be a year or more of motions that put U.S. intelligence and detention practices in the war court spotlight.
Pohl said the public should be ensured access to video feeds of the proceedings on U.S. soil, another first initiated Wednesday. About 60 spectators, including 15 or so reporters, viewed the proceedings through the closed circuit television feed, which was projected on the screen at the base theater in Fort Meade, Md. Most were Defense Department employees who are likely to be involved in future military commission proceedings, though a few were representatives of groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. Another feed was made available to survivors of the Cole bombing at the Navy base at Norfolk, Va.
Pohl also ordered the prison camp’s Navy commander, an admiral, to stop having his staff read and translate defense lawyers’ privileged correspondence with Nashiri. But he declined to rule on a defense motion that would require the prosecution to tell military jurors in the case that even if Nashiri were acquitted he would not be released. Pohl said it was too early in the process to make such a finding.
Throughout the hearing, Nashiri remained unshackled. Four sailor guards sat four feet away.
Nashiri was mostly attentive and engaged, explaining to the judge that he understood that he could don civilian clothes for future court dates, to avoid prejudicing his case, but chose to wear his white prison garb. Told he could also choose not to attend the sessions, Nashiri said it was his intention to be present for every hearing.
Charges against Nashiri include murder in violation of the law of war for the attack by two suicide bombers who sailed a bomb-laden skiff alongside the $1 billion destroyer during a routine refueling stop at Aden, Yemen, then blew themselves up. His charge sheets allege he also set up the October 2002 bombing of the French supertanker MV Limburg, which killed one crewman, as well as a failed attack on another American warship, the USS The Sullivans in January 2000.
Guards brought Nashiri to the war court compound after dawn on Wednesday morning.
The prison camps commander, Navy Rear Adm. David B. Woods, said the transfer and 20-minute drive across the remote Navy base went without injury or a hitch, “exactly as we planned.”