WASHINGTON (AFP) – A Pentagon judge has withdrawn charges against a Saudi detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp accused of taking part in the deadly October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.
Judge Susan Crawford, the convening authority of military commissions, “has withdrawn the charges” against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told AFP.
However Crawford “has withdrawn the charges without prejudice, meaning he can be charged again,” said Jeffrey Gordon, another Pentagon spokesman.
Crawford’s procedural move brings the case against Nashiri to a halt, at least temporarily, and falls in line with President Barack Obama’s executive order shortly after taking office calling for a 120-day delay in proceedings against terror suspects at Guantanamo.
Nashiri’s was the last Guantanamo detainee to be facing trial.
Army Colonel James Pohl, the chief judge at the Guantanamo Bay war crimes court, had rejected Obama’s request to suspend Nashiri’s trial.
The Saudi national was due to be arraigned on Monday, and the Pentagon prosecutor had sought the death penalty for him.
Born in Mecca, Nashiri, 43, was accused of conspiring to help two Islamic extremists who steered an explosives-laden barge alongside the US Navy destroyer Cole, which was docked at the port of Aden, Yemen. The attackers then detonated themselves and their load.
The October 12, 2000 attack killed 17 US sailors and wounded dozens of others. The blast punched a 12-meter (40-foot) hole in the ship’s side.
Nashiri was arrested in 2002, and held in a secret CIA prison for almost four years before being transferred to the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Defense Department charged that Nashiri rented apartments and houses near Aden to observe the port area, and purchased the boat used in the attack.
In February, former CIA director Michael Hayden confirmed that US interrogators had secretly waterboarded Nashiri and two other detainees while he was in the spy agency’s custody.
According to defense lawyers, often the whole process begins again from zero in order to avoid using documents that could show the defendant had been subjected to harsh interrogations.
Before the Pentagon withdrew charges against Nashiri, the leading US rights group American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) accused Defense Secretary Robert Gates of not backing the president’s executive order to halt proceedings against terror suspects at Guantanamo.
“Despite President Obama’s orders to close Guantanamo and halt proceedings, it appears this has not filtered down through the Department of Defense,” said ACLU head Anthony Romero.
“One must question whether this is just the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, whether this is a revolt in the new Obama administration, or whether the new Secretary Gates is just like the old Secretary Gates.”
Gates served as defense secretary under president George W. Bush and was retained in the post by Obama.
Last week Kirk Lippold, the commander of the USS Cole when it was attacked, condemned Obama’s executive order.
Lippold, who backs Guantanamo trials and keeping alleged terrorists in the Cuba detention camp, argued that the US “shouldn’t make policy decisions based on human rights and legal advocacy groups.”
On Thursday he struck a more conciliatory tone, but remained critical of Nashiri’s uncertain fate.
“The families have already been through enough. Don’t put the families through even more of this agony,” he urged.