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Alleged Bomber Faces Death Penalty

July 1, 2008

By Carol Rosenberg, The Miami Herald

Jul. 1–The Pentagon filed death-penalty charges against a Saudi man at Guantanamo on Monday, alleging he engineered the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole off Aden, Yemen.

Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed and 47 other people were wounded in the al Qaeda attack that crippled the $1 billion destroyer four years after it was commissioned at Port Everglades.

The 11-page charge sheet sworn out by a Marine major accused Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 43, of nine law-of-war violations, among them conspiracy, murder and supporting terror.

He allegedly confessed to the crimes during years of secret CIA detention and custody overseas. CIA Director Michael V. Hayden has confirmed he was waterboarded.

The charge sheet seeks to try him by military commission at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba, and execute him if convicted. The next step is for an appointee at the Defense Department to study the charges, and decide on which to proceed and whether to keep it as a capital case.

“Millions and millions of documents have been gathered by the law-enforcement community, the intelligence community, and now it’s taken time to gather that evidence, organize it, collate it, and prepare it,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, who supervises the war court, in announcing the charges.

Nashiri is accused of testing explosives and equipping what looked like a small civilian garbage barge with bombs for two jihadists who appeared friendly as they came alongside the Cole. They then detonated their bomb boat, killing themselves and blasting a 40-foot hole into what became a foundering warship.

EARLIER ATTEMPT

A Mecca-born Saudi citizen of Yemeni background, Nashiri is accused of attempting an earlier explosion that year of the USS Sullivans, also in Aden harbor. It failed. So, in consultation with al Qaeda chieftain Osama bin Laden, he allegedly recovered the boat and retrofitted it for the two suicide bombers in the Cole attack.

In March 2007, according to a partially censored Pentagon transcript, Nashiri told U.S. military officers at Guantanamo that he concocted a confession to please his CIA captors. “From the time I was arrested five years ago, they have been torturing me,” he said then.

Hartmann credited Monday’s announcement to “a multitude of government agencies,” including the departments of Justice and Defense.

‘BEAUTY OF THE SYSTEM’

In response to a reporter’s question, he said it would be up to a U.S. military judge — at trial — to decide whether to accept evidence obtained through waterboarding.

“That’s the beauty of the system,” he said.

International human-rights and law groups have condemned waterboarding as “water torture.”

Among those killed in the 11:22 a.m. blast was Seaman Cherone Gunn, then 22, less than a year in the U.S. Navy and on his first sea tour.

The attack tore through the galley where Gunn was eating an early lunch before going to work on the bridge.

“I want justice. I want it to be swift justice,” his elder brother, Anton J. Gunn, 35, said by telephone from Columbia, S.C., after learning of the charges from a reporter seeking a comment.

Neither the FBI nor the Pentagon had contacted his family, he said, and he was surprised to learn of the latest suspect. The FBI had earlier told victims’ families, he said, that the conspirators were alternately in prison in Yemen, escaped, or had been set free.

“I’m not happy about the death penalty,” added Gunn, a Democrat running for the South Carolina State House. “I would rather they suffer in prison and remember what they did to my family and 16 other families than to die and give them what they want. If they are members of al Qaeda and terrorists, then they want to die in a jihad.”

Moreover, he said even though his brother was a sailor whose U.S. warship was attacked, the men should be tried in federal court in Virginia, the home port of the rebuilt Cole. “It shouldn’t be in Guantanamo Bay or Yemen or some faraway place where we can’t face the people who are accused of murdering my brother and his shipmates,” he said.

Nashiri becomes the 20th Guantanamo detainee currently facing war-crimes charges and the seventh facing possible execution.

DEFENSE TEAM

Even before the Pentagon assigned counsel, a consortium of civilian defense attorneys announced that two lawyers from Albuquerque, N.M., would offer to help Nashiri at the war court.

They are Nancy Hollander, who is already approved to handle top-secret information likely to come into the case, and her law-firm associate, Theresa Duncan.

Hollander was the defense attorney for Taiwanese-American scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was unfairly accused of stealing American nuclear secrets for China.

In 2006, the government and five news organizations agreed to pay Lee $1.6 million to settle his privacy lawsuit.

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