The lawyer for the Saudi captive accused of orchestrating al-Qaida’s bombing of the USS Cole warship said Friday the death-penalty trial might begin in 2018, a prediction that appeared to hearten victims of the Oct. 12, 2000 attack off Yemen who had been bracing for an even longer wait.
Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed in the attack, and dozens more were wounded. The chief prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, pledged “however long it takes” after the judge and attorneys met in a 149-minute closed session. The public and the accused terrorist, Saudi captive Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 51, were excluded.
Thomas Wibberly, whose sailor son Craig, 19, died aboard the ship, accused Nashiri’s Pentagon-paid lawyers of “delaying, distracting or disrupting any way they could.” Closed testimony Friday heard from the prison warden on the complications of letting the Saudi spend hearing and trial nights at a cell behind the war court rather than commute each day to his clandestine Camp 7 prison.
Nashiri’s lawyers call the trip traumatic for the man who was held for nearly four years by the CIA, subjected to waterboarding and other enhanced interrogations that his lawyers call torture before he was brought to the base in 2006 for an eventual trial.
See a guide to Guantánamo’s USS Cole trial, here.
In a particularly moving moment of the press conference, bombing survivor retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Joe Pelly held up the photo of a Cole shipmate — Johan Gokool, a Miami high school graduate — who lost a leg in the attack and announced Friday would’ve been his 38th birthday.
Instead the Trinidad-born Miami man died on Dec. 23, 2009 — one of 10 former Cole shipmates who have died in the aftermath of the suicide attack by two men in a bomb-laden skiff who pulled up alongside the destroyer in Aden Harbor and blew a hole in the side of the ship.
“The earliest a trial will begin is probably in the fall of 2018,” said lawyer Rick Kammen at a news conference, calling even that date “fairly problematic” because of the work yet to be done. A chunk of the week was focused on defense lawyers’ efforts to get their own client’s medical records from his nearly decade-long U.S. military detention at Guantánamo Bay. They have been denied his CIA medical records.
The judge and case attorneys return to Camp Justice in March for two more weeks of pretrial hearings, including a four-day session to hear forensic and other testimony on would-be trial evidence from the devastating explosion itself.
Earlier in the week, some Cole families said in a roundtable with reporters that they had been told the trial could begin in 2024, and expressed fears that more surviving shipmates or the parents of those killed would die before it ended. They declined to say who had provided that timetable. The prosecutor and judge have yet to set a proposed trial date but the chief prosecutor didn’t reject the possibility of a trial in late 2018.
The Cole’s senior enlisted adviser at the time, U.S. Navy Command Master Chief James Parlier, paid homage to the heroism of the ship’s crew for keeping the $1 billion destroyer afloat, rather than letting it sink, he said, as an al-Qaida “trophy.”
“I pray to God that we make it through this and we do hit that target date in 2018 so we can leave some of this behind. The hurt. The pain,” he said, fighting back tears. “I put five of my shipmates in a body bag that day and it hurts every day. Every day.”