Sailors line the bow of the destroyer USS Cole as it glides past One World Trade Center and the lower Manhattan skyline on May 21in New York. (Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press)
MIAMI — A U.S. military judge removed himself Thursday from the death penalty trial at Guantanamo Bay for the prisoner accused of orchestrating the deadly attack on the USS Cole.
Army Col. James Pohl, a prominent judge who has presided over a number of major cases, assigned Air Force Col. Vance Spath to take over the case against Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri. The trial is scheduled to start in February but is likely to be postponed.
Al-Nashiri, a citizen of Saudi Arabia, faces the death penalty if convicted of allegations that he set up the al-Qaida bombing of the Cole, an attack in the Yemeni port of Aden that killed 17 U.S. sailors.
The judge said he removed himself from the case because of scheduling conflicts with the trial of the five Guantanamo Bay prisoners charged in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. No trial date has been scheduled in that death penalty case.
Pohl, the chief judge in the military commissions, handed the defense in the Cole case a major victory in April when he ordered prosecutors to share with defense lawyers never-revealed details about what happened to al-Nashiri in secret CIA prisons following his capture in 2002. Authorities have disclosed that al-Nashiri was subjected to a mock execution and waterboarding but details about his treatment remain classified.
Rick Kammen, an attorney for al-Nashiri, said the deadline for the prosecution to appeal the ruling has passed but it remains to be seen how Spath will enforce the execution of the order or how his appointment might affect the case.