Guantanamo detainee refuses to testify for USS Cole bomber

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GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — A Yemeni prisoner at Guantánamo Bay who was cleared for release nearly a year ago reprimanded an army judge on Friday and refused to testify in the case of the bombing. ‘USS Cole fearing danger after 20 years in United States custody.

“I’m not here for you to take what you want from me and then throw me in the trash,” Abdulsalam al-Hela, who is in his 50s, said in his first appearance in the war court. “I have been waiting 20 years for justice to be done.”

Mr. Hela was called as a potential witness, not as an accused. He told the judge, Col. Lanny J. Acosta Jr., that he feared “there are some mean people here” who would use his testimony against him.

Defense lawyers for Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi prisoner, sought Mr. Hela’s testimony to try to help exonerate their client. Mr Nashiri is accused of orchestrating the al-Qaeda suicide bombing of the Cole off Yemen in October 2000, which killed 17 American sailors.

Mr Hela was captured in Cairo in September 2002 – in court he said he was “kidnapped” – and was held by the CIA in its secret network of overseas black sites for about two years. He was taken to Guantánamo in September 2004 but was never charged with a crime.

He was called two days in a row to give evidence in a deposition that could one day be used in Mr Nashiri’s death penalty trial.

On Thursday, Mr. Hela refused to leave his prison cell to go to the compound of the Guantánamo Bay court, called Camp Justice. On Friday, he appeared in court but refused to swear he would tell the truth.

“He’s afraid his answers will be used against him,” said military defense attorney Maj. Michael J. Lyness of the Army, who told the judge the prisoner was in fact claiming privilege not to testify for fear of self-incrimination.

The judge accepted this interpretation of the prisoner’s conference and challenge, and he released Mr. Hela from the obligation to testify.

Mr. Hela is also at the center of a case before the Federal Court of Appeals regarding the due process rights of prisoners of war at Guantánamo who are not charged with war crimes.

In 2020, US intelligence agencies described him as a “high-profile extremist facilitator” who had “unspecified ties to Osama bin Laden and may have played a role in the attack on the USS Cole”.

In June, however, the Interagency Periodic Review Committee noted that Mr. Hela “has no leadership role in extremist organizations” and approved his transfer to the custody of another country. He has no immediate place to go as US law prohibits the repatriation of Guantánamo detainees to war-torn Yemen, and US diplomats are still trying to find an ally willing to receive and monitor him. his activities.

The council recommended that he be resettled in a country that would allow his family to join him. He also recommended that the host country give Mr Hela ‘reintegration support’ and provide the United States with security guarantees, meaning he would likely be banned from traveling outside of that country. .

This week’s episode highlighted weaknesses in the military commission system. Before Mr. Hela agreed to appear in court, the army judge and the lawyers handling the case debated the judge’s authority to enforce a subpoena against the detainee because, although he is in US military custody, he is being held on foreign soil.

One of Mr Nashiri’s defense lawyers, Katie Carmon, who requested the subpoena, said the war tribunal was in “occupied territory”.

Lead prosecutor Mark A. Miller, a Justice Department attorney assigned to the Cole case, said, “We are wary of the idea that a subpoena can be issued by any court, a United States court, to a foreign national who is in a foreign country. country before a court sitting in a foreign country. So I think the subpoena actually, for our purposes and to get this done, is kind of a waste of time.

The Office of the Overseer of Military Commissions, known as the Convening Authority, refused to grant Mr. Hela immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.

Ms Carmon said the failure to obtain the testimony of the Yemeni prisoner “deprives both the defense and the American people of a public determination of true responsibility for the Cole bombing”.

In court, Mr Hela spoke bitterly about his 20 years in detention in the United States, saying it was “like a life sentence”.

His attorney, Beth D. Jacob, said he wanted to be reunited with his wife and be able to see his only surviving child, a girl he last saw as a toddler. His two sons were killed in an accident while he was detained at Guantánamo, and the daughter, who is now married and expecting her first grandchild, is studying in Yemen to become a human rights lawyer.

The testimony capped two weeks of preliminary hearings focusing on Mr. Nashiri’s torture while in CIA custody following his capture in Dubai in 2002 and another Saudi prisoner who admitted to being part of an Al cadre. -Qaeda who plotted attacks against ships. ships.

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