An alleged al Qaida chieftain facing a death-penalty trial was brought before an Army judge at Camp Justice on Wednesday, his first ever court date nine years after CIA agents captured him in the Arabian Gulf region and spirited him off to waterboarding and other secret interrogation techniques.
Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 46, turned up in a white prison camp uniform of a cooperative Guantánamo captive, beardless and round-faced.
Col. James Pohl, the military judge, began questioning him through an Arabic-English translator about his ability to understand the proceedings and have lawyers defend him against capital terror and murder charges in the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole warship off Yemen.
“At this moment these lawyers are doing the right job,” Nashiri told the judge with a grin.
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Seventeen American sailors died in the attack. Some of their families were watching from a glass-enclosed soundproofed booth at the rear of the tribunal chamber, which a Navy commander described as similar to a “cry room.”
It’s the public’s first glance of the Saudi-born former millionaire from Mecca since his capture. And it’s the first time the Obama administration is seeking the death penalty from a military commission, a jury of 12 U.S. military officers who will be chosen at the soonest next year to hear the case that the captive’s lawyers argue is illegitimate.
The Bush White House branded Nashiri as chief of Arabian Gulf terror operations. Rather than charge him at the time of his capture in October 2002, CIA agents whisked him off to a series of overseas CIA “black sites” where he was subjected to interrogations that included mock executions, threats to his family and the simulated drowning technique, waterboarding.
“By torturing Mr. Nashiri, the United States has lost all moral authority to try and kill him,” argues Indianapolis defense attorney Richard Kammen, leading the Pentagon-paid team of civilian and military defenders tasked to represent him.
The Pentagon’s chief prosecutor, however, counters that no evidence gleaned through torture would be used at a trial that will be kept as open as possible despite the intelligence agencies roles. “We are balancing important interests here: Free press, fair trial and national security,” Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins told reporters on the eve of the arraignment.
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.”
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