An incensed defense team complained at Guantanamo today that, while being transported from his cell to the courtroom, accused USS Cole bombing mastermind Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri got red marks on his wrist.
The forgotten victims of the October 2000 attack in the port of Aden, though, had a message for the al-Qaeda suspect: “Stop hiding like a little girl behind the skirts of Lady Liberty,” in the words of Sharon Pelly, wife of USS Cole sailor Joe Pelly. And to the media: remember who the real victims are.
Al-Nashiri’s lawyers alleged the abuse of their client took place on his way to an afternoon session to hear video testimony from Dr. Vincent Iacopino, author of the UN’s Istanbul Protocol on evaluating torture victims to build a case against offenders.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Reyes began the session by telling Judge James Pohl about the “injuries” to al-Nashiri’s wrist, “some red marks” for which the accused terrorist requested and received medical attention. He asked that the marks be photographed right away, and sought immediate access to any video from the route between the cell and the courtroom.
“We’d like to get to the bottom of what happened,” Reyes said.
The prosecution had no objection to either request.
At a press conference after the day’s hearing, al-Nashiri’s civilian lawyer, Indiana criminal defense attorney Richard Kammen, said the red “scratch marks” were abrasions that would likely develop into bruises.
“He felt like the guards were very, very abusive,” Kammen said of his client, calling whatever happened “something that is certainly quite upsetting and it’s something that’s really quite disappointing.”
He blamed inconsistency in the changing of the guards and “not enough sensitivity, in our view, as to how these people are treated.”
“The people here are really not experienced in running a long-term detention facility, especially a detention facility that has a significant number of people who are damaged as a result of traumatic events,” Kammen charged.
Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, chief prosecutor of the al-Nashiri case, said his team would get to the bottom of what happened.
“We will certainly look into any allegations of abuse,” Martins promised, adding that the facility has a “humane” treatment standard continuously monitored by the Red Cross and international community.
Reyes argued in court that the wrist incident may stomp on his client’s rights by discouraging him from coming to the courtroom.
“The treatment to which Mr. al-Nashiri was subjected is a big, big issue,” Kammen said.
Testifying via video from a large, empty conference room, Iacopino said he has not met al-Nashiri, but examined one detainee in a federal case and reviewed documents for about a dozen others. As al-Nashiri faces a prosecution-requested competency evaluation — which ended this week’s planned motion hearings early — Iacopino said “there are many other skills required in interviewing victim of torture” aside from basic psychological evaluation, including “earning trust” of and “demonstrating empathy” toward someone like al-Nashiri.
“I do have a concern that the individual would be able to develop a trusting relationship based on past records I’ve reviewed,” Iacopino said, further noting that “alleged perpetrators” should not be responsible for transferring al-Nashiri or monitoring his exam.
He also said any existing records regarding al-Nashiri — presumably referring to his interrogations, at which the CIA admits he was waterboarded — would help corroborate the symptoms of PTSD that attorneys for the 48-year-old Saudi say he has.
“Actual allegations of abuse may be corroborated,” Iacopino said. “Very specific methods of torture or injury can be corroborated knowing the exact circumstances of the alleged abuse.”
Kammen later told reporters that Iacopino will help bring “requisite sensitivity” to the evaluation of al-Nashiri.
“You’re dealing with a person who comes from a very distinct population — a victim of torture,” he said. “If we’re gonna do this, if we’re going to subject Mr. Nashiri to this… let’s really do it right.”
Al-Nashiri is charged with murder, terrorism, and other counts in an attempted attack on the USS The Sullivans in January 2000, the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, and an attack on the MV Limburg in October 2002. Seventeen sailors were killed and dozens injured when an explosive-laden boat rammed the Cole in the port of Aden, and one crew member was killed in the attack on the Limburg oil tanker.
And victims who got a chance at the microphone after the lawyers’ news conference today made clear they’ve had enough with al-Nashiri being treated as the victim.
John Clodfelter’s son Kenneth was the first killed by the explosive-laden boat ramming the side of the USS Cole — but his was the last body to be found, 10 days after the al-Qaeda attack.
He said the defense is trying to paint al-Nashiri as a “nice guy, someone you want your daughter to bring home for Christmas.”
Particularly unsettling, Clodfelter said, is how al-Nashiri waves at the victims in the courtroom — as the suicide bombers in the boat that struck the USS Cole waved at sailors on the missile destroyer just before detonation.
“People so often keep thinking about them being al-Qaeda and they say very little if anything about the ship and the people that were on the ship that day,” he said, warning everyone in the press room “al-Qaeda has made it known that they want to kill as many Americans they can get their hands on.”
Senior Chief Petty Officer Joe Pelly, now retired, was aboard the ship that day and had to remove the bodies of his shipmates after the bombing.
“I don’t agree that he gets all these rights but, wonderful country that we have, we give it to him,” said Pelly, who added al-Nashiri appears to have it “pretty well here.”
“He doesn’t look like he’s hurting at all,” Pelly added.
But survivors of that dark day and their families carry plenty of hurt, as well as indignation over how their plight is treated in the media.
Pelly referenced a Jan. 5 Miami Herald article that led with the paragraph, “When victims of al-Qaida attacks want to talk to reporters at Guantánamo, retired Navy Capt. Karen Loftus squires the so-called ‘victim family members’ to Camp Justice’s press shed and introduces herself as their escort.” Loftus introduced today’s USS Cole victims.
“But you want to say he’s a victim,” Pelly said of coverage of al-Nashiri. “No doubt that he was tortured; that’s in writing. …What about the torture we have gone through?”
Not only were they unsure if their ship would be attacked again, but crew members could see jubilant partying on the coastline of Yemen the night of the bombing, he said.
“Torture: we lost 17 men and women,” Pelly said. “Torture: we had 39 wounded not counting the mental state of the survivors.” That includes his own post-traumatic stress disorder, affecting every day of his life but lost in the cacophony of court arguments about al-Nashiri’s claimed PTSD.
“He supposedly has PTSD from 2006 but nobody reports that about us,” he continued. “Think about survivors, the family members of the deceased — think about their PTSD.”
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Sean Dubbs was also on the USS Cole that day. “It’s disheartening the limited coverage this trial has receive is a question about whether those of us standing here are victims,” he said. “We’re standing right here and we’re living with it every day.”
“We will be an outspoken voice from now until justice is served,” Dubbs promised.
Retired Command Master Chief James Parlier asked the assembled media to “please don’t be biased.”
“Please take everything into context and use it out of fairness,” Parlier said. “…One thing I saw that I knew that it was coming is that they were going to make it a human rights issue with Nashiri.”
Parlier said he was proud to watch the USS Cole pull into port weekend before last, returning to Virginia after its seventh deployment.
“After those sonofabitches tried to take her out,” he noted, adding, “I am proud to be an American.”
Martins said the next hearings in al-Nashiri’s case are tentatively scheduled for April 14-19, allowing plenty of time for a competency evaluation plus a physical exam planned by the defense.
Al-Nashiri, who denies he was al-Qaeda’s chief of Gulf operations, faces the death penalty if convicted. He’s already been sentenced to death in absentia by a Yemeni court in 2004.
Navy veteran Pelly simply said, “If he’s competent, let’s nail his ass.”
“If al-Nashiri believes what he did is within his belief and that’s what Allah wanted or his god, well then man up, per se …and stop hiding behind our Constitution.”
Stay tuned to PJM for ongoing coverage of the Guantanamo tribunals.