Torture expert testifies at Guantánamo in USS Cole case

Victims of the USS Cole attacks speak to the media at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo on Feb. 5, 2013.
Victims of the USS Cole attacks speak to the media at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo on Feb. 5, 2013. THE MIAMI HERALD

A doctor with expertise in torture testified remotely before the war court Tuesday, advising the chief judge how to conduct a no-harm medical examination on an alleged al-Qaida deputy who was waterboarded by the CIA.

Dr. Vincent Iacopino testified by video teleconference from a U.S. military base in Nevada in the case of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, accused of war crimes. The doctor said he had neither examined nor met Nashiri, 48, the waterboarded detainee, but that mental health exams of victims of torture need to be culturally sensitive and follow protocols.

Prosecutors sought a competency hearing after defense lawyers suggested Nashiri suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his CIA interrogations. CIA agents waterboarded Nashiri, threatened to rape his mother and held a revving drill to his hooded head among other “enhanced interrogation techniques” to break him after his capture in the United Arab Emirates in November 2002.

Nashiri is accused of orchestrating the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole warship off the coast of Yemen, killing 17 American sailors. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty at the trial before a military jury, which is at least a year away.

Meantime, the competency issue brought the pre-trial hearing to a halt until at least April 14.

Some of the attack’s survivors expressed frustration that the focus of the case was on the accused, not the victims.

“Torture?” said retired Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Joe Pelly, 45, who was aboard the Cole that dark day. “I have my nightmares. I have my PTSD.”

Earlier, the chief prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins said the government sought the competency evaluation to protect the record. If he were found incompetent, said defense lawyer Rick Kammen, Nashiri would likely be put in a facility to try to restore his mental health.

“Doesn’t make a difference if we do it now or do it later,” said Pelly. “If he’s competent, let’s nail his ass.”

Defense lawyers got the judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, to agree to hear from Iacopino before the judge crafts an order for a secret three-member military board to examine Nashiri to determine his competence to stand trial.

Iacopino is an adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School and leading member of Physicians for Human Rights, an international organization that documents abuse and treats victims. He is also an author of the Istanbul Protocol, which lays out how to conduct a medical examination of someone who’s been tortured.

Iacopino has reviewed medical files of at least 10 Guantánamo detainees, testified in a number of those cases, and met with one detainee face-to-face in a habeas corpus case, according to Stephen Greene of Physicians for Human Rights.

That detainee was Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian man who was one of two Guantánamo detainees approved for special interrogation techniques by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

In a since-overturned order to set Slahi free, U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson said the Mauritanian was so abused at Guantánamo from mid-June to September 2003 that his case was “so tainted by coercion and mistreatment, or so classified, that it cannot support a successful criminal prosecution.”

According to the judge, Iacopino testified that any information Slahi gave his interrogators was likely unreliable, because of his abuse at Guantánamo, drawing an unfavorable critique from the judge in a footnote: “Dr. Iacopino was earnest and well-meaning, but he can hardly be described as independent. I found his testimony to be biased and unpersuasive, particularly as the subject of his testimony was not the subject of his professional training.”

This time, Iacopino was not testifying on the reliability of evidence from someone who was tortured but on how to conduct a medical examination of people who may have been tortured.

Captives should be examined without security personnel in the room, unless the person being examined had a history of violence, Iacopino said. If officers are present at the examination, Iacopino said, it should be noted in the medical record as a potentially disqualifying factor.

He also urged the judge to appoint specially skilled medical personnel with experience treating torture victims. “Psychiatrists and psychologists, though familiar with diagnoses of anxiety or depression, rarely have knowledge or experience interviewing people who allege torture or documenting PTSD,” he said.

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