Guantanamo trial of Cole bombing suspect halted

Abdel Rahim al-Nashiri is accused of being the mastermind behind the October 12, 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen (AFP Photo/FILES)

Washington (AFP) - The Guantanamo trial of the chief suspect in the deadly 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen was shut down Friday as defense lawyers refused to return to the case, Pentagon officials said.

Military commissions judge Air Force Colonel Vance Spath halted the case, which could lead to the death penalty for Abdel Rahim al-Nashiri, in frustration that he could not compel Nashiri's main lawyers to show up in court.

"The USS Cole bombing trial ... military judge has abated indefinitely the pre-trial proceedings," Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Sarah Higgins said.

"It is unknown when pre-trial hearings will begin again."

According to a transcript of Friday's hearing, Spath complained that he was unable to enforce his orders on Nashiri's civilian defense attorneys to even join the proceedings by video.

"It's demonstrated lawlessness on their side; they don't follow orders," he said.

But he also complained of lack of support overall for the military commissions, which have made little progress in the cases for Guantanamo's remaining prisoners.

Suggesting that the military commissions setup was not functioning generally, Spath said he could not go on without the direction of a superior court.

"We need action. We need somebody to look at this process. We need somebody to give us direction," Spath said.

The problems in the Nashiri trial "tells you how infected the process is and how far it goes within the Department of Defense that owns the process," he said.

The case, the military trial of one of the most high-profile prisoners at Guantanamo, plunged into chaos last year when three of Nashiri's lawyers quit.

They alleged that their supposed privileged conversations with and about their client had been monitored electronically by the government, and that they could not proceed with his defense in that case.

When Brigadier General John Baker, who oversees legal defense teams at Guantanamo, refused to order them back to work, he was charged with contempt of court and sentenced to three weeks' confinement in his Guantanamo trailer.

That left Nashiri's defense to Navy Lieutenant Alaric Piette, who only has six years' experience as a lawyer and none in a death penalty case. Piette has not actively defended Nashiri, admitting he lacks the qualification to do so.

Nashiri is accused of being the mastermind behind the October 12, 2000 bombing of the Cole, a guided missile destroyer that was moored in Aden, Yemen, when it was attacked.

The bombing, claimed by Al-Qaeda, left 17 dead and 39 injured.

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