USS Cole bombing: Defense grills judge as suspect is arraigned in Cuba
Suspected Al Qaeda operative Abdal Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the suicide boat attack on the USS Cole in 2000, appeared before a military judge at Guantánamo to face war crimes charges.
Fort Meade, Md.
Suspected Al Qaeda operative Abdal Rahim al-Nashiri appeared before a military judge at the US Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Wednesday to face war crimes charges that he masterminded the Oct. 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Nashiri, dressed in a white prison uniform, sat quietly at the defense table beside his lawyers as the judge, US Army Col. James Pohl, advised him of his rights and of the nine crimes he is alleged to have committed.
Judge Pohl then instructed Nashiri to stand. “I now ask you how do you plead?”
Defense Counsel Richard Kammen spoke for his client: “The defense reserves pleas and motions at this time.”
The action set in motion a specially designed military commission process that the US government hopes will end with Nashiri’s execution.
It is a legal process denounced by human rights advocates as inferior and unjust. Supporters defend the special trial rules as necessary to protect national security in an age of terrorism.
In addition to hearing several legal motions, Pohl set a tentative trial date of Nov. 9, 2012.
Nashiri’s arraignment at the naval base was broadcast live to an auditorium at Fort Meade for members of the media who did not travel to Cuba for the hearing, including this correspondent.
Also in the courtroom were relatives of the 17 Cole crewmembers killed in the Al Qaeda attack, in which two Yemenis in a launch loaded with explosives motored up to the ship and waved hello to sailors before detonating their bomb, tearing a 30-foot gash in the Cole’s hull.
John Clodfelter said he made the trip to Guantánamo from his home in Mechanicsville, Va., for a specific purpose. “I wanted to be able to face him face-to-face if for no other reason than to let him know, ‘Hey, you haven’t gotten away with this,’ ” he said.
He said he was surprised when he first saw Nashiri, as he was led into the courtroom. “When we first saw him he was just a pitiful looking person,” he said.
Mr. Clodfelter’s son, Kenneth, is the first Cole victim listed in the charging documents. He said the boat apparently exploded near where his son had been sitting on the inside of the hull. Officials had difficulty recovering Kenneth Clodfelter’s body.
“We had to bury him three different times,” the father said.
Nashiri is charged with having organized and set in motion a series of Yemen-based attacks reportedly authorized by Osama bin Laden. In addition to the Cole attack, Nashiri allegedly attempted a similar suicide attack against the USS The Sullivans in Sept. 2000. That attack failed when the explosives-laden boat foundered in the surf after being launched.
Nashiri is also charged with having organized and set in motion an October 2002 attack against the French supertanker MV Limburg. One crew member on the tanker died in the blast.
Nashiri has been in US custody for nine years, four of them in the company of CIA interrogators. They allegedly threatened him with a pistol and drill, and subjected him to the notorious interrogation technique called waterboarding. Nashiri’s lawyer and human rights advocates denounce the tactic as torture.
The proceedings against Nashiri are somewhat different than a criminal case in federal court. One such difference is that Col. Pohl offered both the defense and the prosecution an opportunity to question him and decide whether to challenge his appointment as the judge to preside over the war crimes tribunal.
Mr. Kammen grilled the officer on several controversial aspects of the case.
“How do you feel about the death penalty,” he asked.
“What difference does that make,” the judge responded. “Is that an appropriate question for a judge?”
He added: “My position is this, I will apply the law as given.”
Kammen asked the judge to assume that Nashiri was guilty of all that he’s been charged with. “Could a sentence other than death be full and fair justice under those circumstances?”