WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. military prosecutors have requested the death penalty for the alleged mastermind behind the bombing of the USS Cole warship that killed 17 U.S. sailors in 2000, the Pentagon said on Monday.
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi Arabian national of Yemeni descent being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, faces eight charges, including murder and terrorism, for the attack in the Yemeni port of Aden on October 12, 2000, that wounded 47 sailors.
Prosecutors have also charged al-Nashiri over a failed attack on another U.S. warship, the USS The Sullivans, in Aden in January 2000 and an attack on the SS Limburg, a French supertanker, in the Gulf of Aden in October 2002.
“Five of the eight charges carry the maximum penalty of death,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, legal adviser to the body that oversees the military commissions system set up to try terrorism suspects.
Prosecutors allege al-Nashiri was a senior al Qaeda figure. He is one of 14 “high value” detainees held at the prison at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay who is regarded as particularly significant by U.S. officials.
Suicide bombers rammed a small boat laden with explosives into the side of the USS Cole, ripping a 40-foot hole in the hull. Prosecutors allege al-Nashiri recruited two co-conspirators to carry out the attack.
The CIA has said it used waterboarding on al-Nashiri and he has alleged he was tortured.
Waterboarding is a form of simulated drowning that human rights activists say amounts to torture — a label the Bush administration does not accept.
Hartmann told reporters at the Pentagon any questions about the admissibility of evidence obtained through waterboarding would be addressed when al-Nashiri came to trial.
“All the evidentiary issues are going to be resolved in the courtroom. That is the beauty of this system,” he said. “We’ll leave that to the trial process.”
Rights groups have said the military commissions system does not give detainees a fair trial.
“This case — like that of other Guantanamo detainees — is being pursued in an unconstitutional and biased system that is a far cry from the tried-and-true American justice system,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The group said it was sponsoring a group of civilian lawyers to represent al-Nashiri.
The United States has alleged that al-Nashiri was al Qaeda’s operations chief in the Arabian peninsula until his capture in 2002. He has met the Islamist militant network’s chief, Osama bin Laden, several times, U.S. officials allege.
The top official supervising the military commissions must decide whether to approve the charges against al-Nashiri.
If the charges are approved, an initial hearing should take place within 30 days. A trial should begin within 120 days of the charges being approved, but that time can be extended.
Kirk Lippold, the commander of the Cole when it was attacked, welcomed the fact that charges had been filed.
“I think it’s a long overdue first step, and only a first step, in finally holding the people who carried out the attack on the USS Cole accountable,” Lippold, now retired from the Navy, told Reuters by telephone.
Editing by Kristin Roberts and Cynthia Osterman