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Today, an arraignment comes at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The defendant is accused of orchestrating the bombing of an American ship - the USS Cole - 11 years ago. If he's found guilty, he could be put to death. The complicated case raises many issues, including long-term detention and torture. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports from Guantanamo Bay.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The trial of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri marks a series of firsts. This it the first military commission case entirely initiated by the Obama administration. He's the first detainee to be subjected to new rules that are supposed to make these military trials more transparent. And Matt Waxman, who used to be in charge of detainee affairs for the Bush administration, says there's other new ground.
MATT WAXMAN: It's the first really high value detainee, high profile detainee, to go through this process and it involves the death penalty. And if we get to that stage, that's going to raise all kinds of interesting and very, very controversial, legal, strategic and diplomatic issues.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The military commissions haven't had a death penalty case before either. So, amid all these firsts, today's trial is seen as a test of sorts. A test of whether a separate military justice system in Guantanamo can provide the same impartial justice as a criminal court in the United States.
On top of that, the case is complicated. Al-Nashiri is accused of planning the bombing of the USS Cole. It was refueling in Yemen when a rubber boat full of explosives drew up alongside and detonated. Seventeen servicemen and women died in the attack. For his alleged role, al-Nashiri is being charged with war crimes, including terrorism and conspiracy and murder. But the attack happened before Congress authorized military action against al-Qaida.
Another issue: Al-Nashiri was arrested in 2002 and then disappeared for nearly four years. The CIA has acknowledged that he was in their custody. And that he was water-boarded and subjected to other enhanced interrogation techniques. So the military commission will have to grapple with the issue of torture too.
For people tracking Guantanamo detainees, there will be a more basic milestone today. When al-Nashiri walks into the courtroom, it will be the first time he's been seen in public in nine years.
RICHARD KAMMEN: I'm Richard Kammen. I am the learned counsel, or the death penalty expert, appointed by the Department of Defense.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Kammen is al-Nashiri's lead attorney. He met reporters in an empty airplane hanger just a stone's throw from the courthouse yesterday. He offered a list of reasons why he thinks the deck is stacked against his client. For example, even though the arraignment is today, the government has yet to give the defense any discovery. The Pentagon released the more than 200 pages of new rules governing the commissions, but that was just two days ago.
KAMMEN: You know, we're all going to be dressed in suits. It's going to look like a court, but it is not a real court. There is nothing about this that is fair, legitimate. This is a court organized to convict. It is a court organized to kill.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The Obama administration and key military officials disagree.
BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK MARTINS: I'm Brigadier General Mark Martins. I'm the chief prosecutor of military commissions.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Martins is the man who decides which detainees will have a military commission trial and when. And, as he sees it, two acts of Congress: a Supreme Court decision, and an executive review have helped craft a system to try terrorists. And that system is fair.
MARTINS: Reasonable people looking at this system, I think, will see that it really withstands scrutiny.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The scrutiny begins in earnest today. And not just because there will be people in the courtroom watching the proceedings. There will be a closed circuit television feed that will broadcast the arraignment to the United States for the first time. It can be seen at Fort Meade, in Maryland, and the public is allowed to attend.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
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