GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, CUBA (AP) — A Saudi considered among the most senior figures in al Qaeda emerged Wednesday from nine years of secret confinement to face charges of orchestrating the deadly attack on the USS Cole in the start of a new round of Guantanamo Bay war crimes tribunals under a president who vowed to halt them.
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri did not enter a plea as he was arraigned and the court dealt with a number of procedural issues.
The detainee, who was subjected to the harsh interrogation techniques that his lawyers say amounted to torture, appeared engaged and occasionally smiled as he responded to questions from the judge.
The charges against al-Nashiri, 46, include murder in violation of the law of war in the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, an attack killed 17 crew members.
Authorities say he took orders directly from Osama bin Laden and also set up the October 2002 bombing of the French supertanker MV Limburg, which killed one crewman, as well as a failed attack on another American warship, the USS The Sullivans in January 2000.
He was allowed to remain unshackled, declined an offer to exchange his white prison uniform for civilian clothes in future court appearances and said he wants to keep all the members of his appointed legal team.
"At this moment these lawyers are doing the right job," he told the judge.
It was a low-key start to a highly anticipated proceeding, the start of a capital case against a prisoner who was held in a series of clandestine CIA prisons where he was subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding as well as mock executions and other forms of harsh interrogation.
President Obama took office pledging to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, but was rebuffed by Congress, which has refused to authorize moving prisoners from the U.S. base in Cuba, and forced him to resume the war crimes prosecutions started under his predecessor.
Three Guantanamo cases have been resolved through plea bargains under Mr. Obama but al-Nashiri is the first initiated under this administration and it is considered a prelude to the prosecution of the five Guantanamo prisoners who are accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The trial of al-Nashiri will take place under a military commission system that has been revised by Congress and the Obama administration but is still subject to criticism from defense lawyers and human rights groups, who have complained about repeated changes in procedures and rules that favor the prosecution.
Legal experts also have questioned whether al-Nashiri should be charged with a war crime for the Cole bombing, which occurred before the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. declaration of war on al Qaeda.