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In first court appearance, USS Cole case judge sets 2025 trial goal

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The wait was long for the survivors of the attack and the relatives of the killed sailors. A Saudi prisoner, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, has been detained in the United States since 2002 and was first charged in 2011, making it the longest-running capital case at Guantánamo Bay.

Paul Abney, a senior sailor on the ship, called the judge’s announcement “delightful words to hear.” He was in court Monday for the hearings and has visited Guantánamo a dozen times since 2012 to witness the legal wrangling.

“Even if it doesn’t happen next year, the fact that he’s willing to set a target date and make it a goal to achieve is, I think, inspiring,” said Mr. Abney, a leader at retirement from the Navy.

Colonel Fitzgerald has an additional 14 weeks of hearings on the 2024 calendar. Pre-trial issues still need to be addressed, including the admissibility of certain evidence, proposed witnesses, whether Mr. Nashiri can be tried by a military commission, how to sit on a panel of military officers and whether Mr. Nashiri would be entitled to administrative credit if he is convicted but not sentenced to death.

Before the trial even began, the judge issued an order setting deadlines for both parties to prepare for trial. The schedule directs Mr. Nashiri’s lawyers to provide prosecutors with a list of witnesses they would like to call to testify at trial by Jan. 9.

The judge announced the goal in his first hour on the bench. But he made no mention of a government effort to get an appeals panel to overturn a decision by his predecessor.

Colonel Acosta excluded as tainted by torture the confessions made by the accused to federal agents at Guantánamo Bay after years of secret imprisonment by the CIA. Mr. Nashiri was subjected to simulated drowning, rectal violence and prolonged sleep deprivation. Prosecutors asked the Court of Military Commissions Review to reinstate the confession.

Whatever the panel decides, lawyers for the defense or prosecution are expected to take the issue to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a process that could last much of this year.

In February 2020, Colonel Acosta set deadlines for Mr. Nashiri’s trial date of February 2022. But the following month, the coronavirus pandemic forced the Guantanamo court to close for about 500 days. Col. Acosta retired last year without setting a trial date.

On Monday, in the dock, Colonel Fitzgerald declared that he had had “an unorthodox military career”. He enlisted in the Army after high school, served as a psychiatric specialist from 1986 to 1990, then participated in Army medevac missions until 1999, all in the United States.

He left military service to attend college, taught high school, and then chose law. He was in his second year of law school when the Cole was bombed and in his final year during the attacks of September 11, 2001. He returned to the military as an attorney in 2003 and was deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan as well as at the Guantánamo Bay military prison in 2008.

At Guantanamo, he worked for 90 days as part of a legal team created to respond to any new legal filings regarding detainees in light of a Supreme Court ruling, Boumediene v. Bush, who gave inmates a thorough review of their time in federal prisons. courts. Colonel Fitzgerald called it “the mission that never happened” because “no writ was filed on our watch.”

While there, Colonel Fitzgerald said he took it upon himself to provide advice to the commander of a military police unit that did not have a resident attorney and visited the prison, including the high-value detention site where Mr. Nashiri was held. guard.

Colonel Fitzgerald is the only military commissions judge known to have visited the Guantanamo detention centers. But he said he avoided looking the detainees in the eye and had no memory of who was being held there.

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