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GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A U.S. military judge ordered prosecutors in the Guantanamo war crimes tribunal on Thursday to estimate how much money the United States has spent investigating the deadly bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in the past 12 years.
Defense lawyers for the alleged mastermind of the bombing, Saudi prisoner Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, asked for information in the hope of showing that they have been vastly outspent by the government, and suggested this could be a deciding factor in whether the tribunal ultimately sentences Nashiri to die.
"I agree with the defense this is a potentially mitigating factor in a death case," said the judge, Army Colonel James Pohl. "At the end of the day this type of evidence could very well be relevant to sentencing."
Nashiri, 47, is an alleged al Qaeda chief accused of directing two suicide bombers to drive an explosives-filled boat into the side of the USS Cole while the warship was refueling off Yemen in 2000. The blast killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured dozens more.
The charges against Nashiri include murder, attempted murder, terrorism and providing material support for terrorism.
His trial, which is set to begin in November but likely to be delayed, would be the first death penalty case to reach trial in the war crimes tribunals at the Guantanamo Bay
Five other captives at the U.S. naval base are scheduled to be arraigned next month on death penalty charges of plotting the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Checkbook issues emerged during two days of pretrial hearings in the Nashiri case.
Pohl granted a defense request to hire a Yemeni investigator at $700 a day to help prepare the case, but denied their request for additional personnel to help translate some 150,000 pages of documents from English into Nashiri's native Arabic.
Nashiri speaks a little English, reads none and needs to know what is in the documents that could be used as evidence against him, defense attorney Rick Kammen argued. The defense has six translators at its disposal but they can get through only about 15 pages a day and it would take decades for them to finish the work, he said.
Prosecutors said no law required the translation of every document, and the judge said Nashiri's four English-speaking lawyers could sort through the papers and their interpreter could explain the relevant ones to the defendant.
The judge said the issue was the trial rules, not the cost, but Kammen was unpersuaded.
"The subtext of all of this seems to be the cost," he said after the hearing. "It seems to be the attitude of the military that we can kill him and do it cheaply. That is again, we think, transparently unfair."
The defense lawyers have said their own resources were so skimpy they have run out of office paper.
Pohl's order to estimate the cost of the Cole investigation will require asking numerous government agencies, including the CIA, FBI and Defense Department to tally up both the money and man-hours spent on an investigation that has lasted more than a decade and covered several nations.
Nashiri was arrested in Dubai in 2002 and held in secret CIA prisons, reportedly in Afghanistan, Poland and Thailand, before being sent to the U.S. detention center in Cuba in 2006.
Kammen estimated that the U.S. government had spent about 30 man-years in the first two years of the investigation alone.
The chief prosecutor in the tribunals, Brigadier General Mark Martins, said the cost of the Cole investigation would be difficult to determine as it was one part of a much larger effort, an apparent reference to the war against al Qaeda.
"To be sure, the standard is justice, which can never be reduced to a cost," Martins said.
He said there was no set budget for the trial, and expenses were drawn piecemeal from Congressional allocations based partly on "swags," military slang for "sophisticated wild-assed guess."
Ron Francis, a U.S. Navy retiree whose 19-year-old daughter Lakeina Francis was among the sailors killed aboard the Cole, said money should be no obstacle.
"The world's looking at us, how we seek justice," said Francis, who traveled to Guantanamo to watch the proceedings.
(This story corrects date of Nashiri's arrival in Cuba in paragraph 15 to 2006)
Editing by David Adams and David Brunnstrom