USS Cole Attack Suspect Appears In Military Court

The Obama administration's first attempt to try a Guantanamo detainee in a military commission began Wednesday with the arraignment of the man accused of masterminding the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. The incident killed 17 servicemen and women in Yemen in 2000. Human rights groups object to trying terrorists in a parallel justice system hundreds of miles off U.S. shores.

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The alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing in Yemen emerged in public for the first time in nine years yesterday. His appearance came in a military courtroom, where he was formally charged with a list of war crimes, from terrorism to conspiracy to murder. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports from Guantanamo Bay.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The gallery was packed. Reporters, observers, family members and survivors of the Cole attack sat together, straining to catch a glimpse of the defendant so they could put a name to a current face of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

For nearly a decade, he's been seen only by intelligence officials, prison guards, and his lawyers. Then, all at once, he emerged from a side door of a courtroom and it was with a jailhouse swagger. Melina Milazzo, an attorney with Human Rights First, was there.

MELINA MILAZZO: I guess I was expecting that perhaps he wouldn't have such confidence and perhaps he'd be a little more broken down.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Broken down because this 46-year-old detainee has been subjected to secret prisons, waterboarding, mock executions and isolation since 2002. Now he's getting his day in court, though it's more likely to be years in court. He's the first high value detainee to be put through a military commissions trial. And because of that, everything is taking longer. And critics are questioning the fairness of the process.

RICHARD KAMMEN: If you really analyze what occurred today, that proceeding in federal court, an arraignment, would've taken about five minutes, 10 tops.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's defense attorney Richard Kammen, speaking to reporters right after the hearing. And he has a point. Arraignments are usually perfunctory. But al-Nashiri's arraignment at Guantanamo lasted four hours. The discussion of the charges themselves took minutes. Most of the time was chewed up by motions that were focused on how the court would work.

Brigadier General Mark Martins is the chief prosecutor of the military commissions He says that he thinks the military commissions are fair and in certain instances they are the best way to deal with terrorists. But he adds...

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK MARTINS: They're not an exclusive or sole way of attacking or countering networks of global reach.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In some cases, he says, federal courts can handle terrorism cases just fine. Everyone has been so focused on where al-Nashiri's being tried that for some the reason he's in court has gotten a little lost.

He's accused of masterminding a series of boat attacks around Yemen. The USS Cole was the most deadly one. Seventeen service men and women died. And because of that, al-Nashiri faces the death penalty if he's found guilty. Even so, Kammen said his client was relieved that the trial had finally started.

KAMMEN: There's a bigger room. He's probably not been in a room bigger than an 8x12 room in the last 11 years. And so I think that there was a newness that was exciting to him.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The people in the gallery didn't need Kammen to tell them that. You could see it on al-Nashiri's face. At one point he actually spun his chair around and waved to the gallery. His lawyers quickly put down his arm and huddled around him. Defense attorneys asked for at least a year to prepare their case.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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