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 publics first look at the man who was waterboarded in CIA custody and interrogated with a revving drill and cocked gun near his head.
Its 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 Ladens 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 everythings 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.