By Jane Sutton
GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba, Feb 5 (Reuters) -
Pretrial hearings for an alleged al Qaeda chieftain were halted
for at least two months on Tuesday while doctors assess whether
he is mentally fit to stand trial at Guantanamo on charges of
orchestrating a deadly attack on a U.S. warship.
Lawyers for Saudi defendant Abd al Rahim al Nashiri have
never claimed he is mentally incompetent now or that he was when
the USS Cole was bombed off Yemen in 2000. But once they said he
suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by
torture in secret CIA prisons, prosecutors said they were bound
by the trial rules to ask that he undergo a mental competency
The judge granted the request and a pretrial hearing that
was supposed to last four days in the war crimes tribunal at the
Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba ended after a day and a
half. Without first making sure Nashiri is competent to
understand the proceedings and assist in his defense, there was
a chance that any conviction could be overturned on appeal.
"It was important that we stop it, important that we do this
right," said the chief prosecutor, Brigadier General Mark
The judge set the next hearing for April 14 for Nashiri, who
is accused of directing the suicide bombers who rammed a boat
full of explosives into the Cole, killing 17 U.S. sailors and
wounding 37. He could be executed if convicted on charges that
include murder and attempted murder.
He has been in U.S. custody since his arrest in Dubai in
2002 and was held for four years in secret CIA prisons before
being sent to Guantanamo in 2006.
The CIA has acknowledged that interrogators threatened to
rape Nashiri's mother in his presence, subjected him to the
simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding and
threatened him with a gun and a power drill while he was naked
On Tuesday, his lawyers said Nashiri arrived at the
courtroom with red bruises on his wrists. The judge granted
defense lawyers' request to see a videotape of his transfer from
his cell to determine whether guards had roughed him up.
Nashiri, a small 48-year-old man with short, black hair, has
come to court voluntarily and respectfully answered the judge's
questions. He has denied involvement with al Qaeda or the Cole
The final witness in the hearing, Dr. Vincent Iacopino,
advised that the doctors who examine him be given access to any
medical or other records that might help corroborate the cause
of any mental health issues.
Iacopino is a senior medical adviser for Physicians for
Human Rights and played a key role in drafting the Istanbul
Protocol, international standards for evaluating and treating
torture victims. Testifying by videolink from a U.S. military
base, he advised that the doctors who evaluate Nashiri be
culturally sensitive, try to build his trust, and conduct their
interviews outside the presence of jailers if possible.
The attention to Nashiri's rights was hard to bear for some
of the spectators at the hearing, a small group of sailors who
survived the attack on the Cole and relatives of those who died
aboard the ship.
"What about the torture that we have gone through?" asked
Joe Pelly, a now-retired senior chief petty officer who helped
remove his colleagues' shredded remains from the bloodied decks.
"I have my nightmares. I have PTSD, My family has to deal
with that. I'm on medication. It doesn't get better."
Pelly is eagerly awaiting the doctors' findings on Nashiri.
"If he's competent, let's nail his ass," he said.
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