New System For USS Cole Case At Guantanamo

This week at Guantanamo Bay prison, there will be a hearing in the military trial of the man alleged to be behind the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. Guantanamo just marked the 10-year anniversary of its use as a detention center for suspected terrorists, and the trial marks a new phase for the prison. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston talks with host Rachel Martin.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. This week, the alleged mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen will be back in a military courtroom at Guantanamo. Guantanamo just marked a controversial milestone - the 10-year anniversary of its use as a detention center for suspected terrorists. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is here with us now to talk about this week's hearing, 10 years at Guantanamo and what lies ahead for the prison. Dina, let's start out - tell us a little bit about the hearing that's happening this week.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, the man at the center of it all is a Saudi named Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Prosecutors say that he was in charge of an al-Qaida cell in Yemen and helped plan the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. You remember that the Cole was a USS destroyer that had stopped in Yemen to refuel, and there were some suicide bombers in a rubber boat that was filled with explosives. And they floated up alongside and blew this huge hole in the ship. And 17 service men and women died in that attack. Well, his military trial started back in November, and this week there's going to be another hearing scheduled and he's expected to attend.

MARTIN: So, is this the first actual trial at Guantanamo since President Obama took office?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, exactly. Al-Nashiri is the first trial that's going to use the Obama administration's so-called reformed military commission. I mean, the early commission system was seen as unfair to defendants. There was hearsay evidence allowed, for example, and evidence gathered from torture was allowed in court as well, and that was a huge issue. So, what the Obama administration did is it rewrote the rules of the commission a couple of years ago, and the al-Nashiri trial is the first one to test the commission under these new rules, these new reforms. So, everybody's watching it pretty carefully.

MARTIN: OK. So, let's talk about these reforms. Have they actually fixed these problems that you just mentioned?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, some of the rules of evidence conform much more now with the rules that we're used to seeing in federal courts. And the chief prosecutor there at Guantanamo - he's a man named General Mark Martins - he said that his team isn't going to offer any evidence in court that has even the slightest whiff of having been obtained through torture. Now, we'll see if that turns out to be the case, but that's the line that they've taken. I think the other thing that's really important to note here is that the Department of Justice is really involved in these military tribunals. A lot of the lawyers on the prosecution team, for example, they're from the Department of Justice. A lot of the way the evidence has been gathered and the casework that's already been done on some of these detainee cases, that's also coming out of the Department of Justice. And I think there's been the sense, as these military commissions have sort of evolved, that all these terrorisms cases are going to be just passed off to the military and tried in these cobbled-together commission systems. And what military prosecutors seem to be trying to do is to sort of build something that looks a lot like the federal court system.

MARTIN: And that's important right now because there is this big debate in Congress about where suspected terrorists should be tried - military commissions or civilian courts?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. I mean, members of Congress have made it difficult for the Obama administration to try suspected terrorists in criminal courts in the U.S. I mean, there are lawmakers like Senator Lindsay Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, who said that terrorism isn't a crime, it's an act of war, so military trials are the appropriate way to deal with them. So, one reason the trial of the alleged Cole bomber is so important is because it's going to be a test for this new system.

MARTIN: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Thanks, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're very welcome.

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