The prime suspect in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole will face a military tribunal in Guantanamo, defense officials said, in a trial expected to shine a spotlight on CIA interrogations under former president George W. Bush.
The Pentagon announced it had formally referred charges against Abd al-Rahim Hussayn Muhammad al-Nashiri in the first new case to go to trial in the Guantanamo Bay “war on terror” tribunal since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.
The Saudi-born Nashiri, who faces a possible death sentence, is one of three detainees the CIA has admitted to waterboarding and his harsh treatment at the hands of US interrogators is expected to play a central role in the trial.
The charges against Nashiri allege he was head “of the planning and preparation for the attack” on the USS Cole in Yemen’s port of Aden on October 12, 2000, which killed 17 sailors and wounded 40 more.
The assault by an explosives-laden skiff blew a 30-foot by 30-foot (10m by 10m) hole in the warship.
US military prosecutors also accuse Nashiri of plotting an attempted strike on USS The Sullivans in Aden in January 2000 and of planning an attack on a French civilian oil tanker MV Limburg in the Gulf of Aden in 2002 that left one Bulgarian crew member dead and caused an oil spill of 90,000 barrels.
Nashiri is due to be arraigned within a month at a newly built court house at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which will mark his first public appearance since he was detained in 2002.
According to documents released in 2009, the Saudi national was subjected to dozens of waterboarding sessions by interrogators. The simulated drowning technique has been condemned as torture by foreign governments and human rights organizations, while US authorities have since prohibited the practice.
The waterboarding was approved by Justice Department authorities at the time and senior officials under ex-president Bush have defended the practice, including former vice president Dick Cheney.
Nashiri was also threatened with a power drill and subjected to the mock firing of a handgun at his temple, according to a CIA account.
At a closed hearing in 2007, Nashiri said he confessed to the Cole bombing because he was subjected to torture.
Under the revised rules of the military tribunals, prosecutors cannot cite evidence obtained through torture, which could rule out statements the accused made while in CIA detention.
In one of his first acts as president in 2009, Obama halted trials at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and announced he would close the prison.
But he reversed himself in March, giving the green light to resume proceedings before the controversial tribunals.
When Obama lifted the ban on new military trials for Guantanamo inmates, he issued new guidelines designed to ensure humane and lawful treatment of suspects deemed too dangerous to release.
The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the decision to try Nashiri at the Guantanamo commission and said civilian courts in the United States could ensure a fair trial with stricter rules on evidence.
“All of our concerns about the inherent unfairness of the military commissions are compounded in cases like this one, in which the result could be death,” said Denny LeBoeuf, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project.
The White House and Justice Department have blamed opposition in Congress for imposing measures blocking possible trials of Guantanamo inmates in the United States.
The Obama administration plans to try 33 of the 171 detainees held at Guantanamo, officials said.
The charges against Nashiri were posted on a new website for the military commissions as part of an effort by defense officials to make the proceedings more accessible amid complaints from news outlets.
The Pentagon has pledged to post court documents promptly online and is planning to set up a video feed of the proceedings that will be broadcast to a site in the US capital region to allow families of victims and reporters to follow the trials.