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New Gitmo judge throws out French tanker charges in USS Cole case

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — The new judge in the USS Cole case Monday dismissed collateral charges related to al-Qaida’s 2002 attack on a French oil tanker, according to two defense attorneys who read the ruling.

“This represents a serious rejection of the prosecution’s claim that it can invoke theories, provide no evidence and expect the [war court] will blindly ratify those theories,” said attorney Richard Kammen, who is defending alleged al-Qaida terrorist Abd al Rahim al Nashiri at a death-penalty trial.

Nashiri, 49, is accused of orchestrating al-Qaida’s Oct. 12, 2000, suicide attack on the USS Cole warship off Yemen that killed 17 American sailors. His charge sheet also alleged that, after the 9/11 attacks, Nashiri also set up al-Qaida’s Oct. 6, 2002 bombing of the French supertanker MV Limburg that killed Bulgarian crew member Atanas Atanasov, and wounded 12 other workers on the ship.

Monday, Air Force Col. Vance Spath, on the case for a month, did not rule on the overarching challenge by defense attorneys that an oil ship in the region was a legitimate strategic target or at very least was not part of the Guantánamo war court jurisdiction, according to those who read it.

He threw out the charges on the limited finding that the prosecution failed to produce any evidence about the bombing, according to the two lawyers who read it, a decision the prosecution could revisit by calling witnesses in a motion for reconsideration.

Kammen called the decision particularly important at the court that was set up in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks because of “serious and continuing questions” on whether the Guantánamo war court has jurisdiction over alleged crimes that took place before 9/11.

Last week, Spath presiding for the first time in the USS Cole bombing case, overruled the chief of the war court judiciary and decided to decide all outstanding issues, even those his predecessor Army Col. James L. Pohl had heard. Monday’s was his first known ruling in that series.

In a comment on the dismissal, Kammen, a seasoned civilian death-penalty defender, also said that the decision demonstrated the need to try the case in federal court.

“None of these issues would arise had the case been prosecuted in an Article III court,” he said.

The Miami Herald was seeking a response to the ruling from the prosecution, which has been steadfast in its refusal to comment on judges’ orders under seal. Unless a military commissions judge pre-clears court filings, it could take 15 business days for it to be revealed to the public.

In February, Nashiri’s defense attorneys sought dismissal of the Limburg charges, a lesser-known portion of the Nashiri case, by arguing that the U.S. had no real stake in the attack in Yemeni waters on a French-owned ship carrying Iranian oil on a Malaysian contract, in which a Bulgarian national died.

Navy Cmdr. Brian Mizer argued that it was “telling” that in 2002 the U.S. dispatched Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents to the Limburg “to conduct, not a full criminal investigation, but merely one with respect to causation. And they were pointedly told by the French investigators on the scene that the Limburg was sovereign French soil and that they had no jurisdiction there.”

Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the prosecutor, argued the war court has jurisdiction in the case because France was an ally in the war on terror at the time and al-Qaida’s seaborne attacks had impact on the global oil market.

The Limburg axis may be important to the Nashiri case because the prosecution sealed a plea agreement in February with another captive, Ahmad al Darbi, to testify at any commissions hearings in the next three and a half years in exchange for release to his native Saudi Arabia. Darbi, 39, pleaded guilty to terrorism charges that said he colluded with Nashiri to buy provisions and train operatives, some of which ended up being used in the Limburg attack.

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