Waterboarded Al Qaeda Mastermind of U.S.S. Cole Attack Gets 'Victim' Status from Poland

October 27, 2010 - 5:49 PM
Terror Suspect Gets Victim Status in Polish Probe

USS Cole bombing

In this Oct. 28, 2000 file photo, Yemeni fishermen pass by the damaged destroyer USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen, after a powerful explosion ripped a hole in the U.S Navy destroyer, killing at least 17 sailors and injuring some 30 others. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

(AP) - Ten years ago this month, al-Qaida terrorists drove an explosives-laden boat into the USS Cole Navy destroyer as it was refueling in Yemen, killing American 17 sailors. But the man suspected of engineering that attack still hasn't been brought to trial.

Polish prosecutors are looking at him as a victim as they investigate a now-shuttered secret CIA prison that operated in Poland where he was subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, according to former U.S. intelligence officials and publicly available documents.

The chief prosecutor in the case, Jerzy Mierzewski, said Wednesday that Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri has received the status of victim, a move that allows the detainee's lawyers to participate in the larger investigation by reviewing evidence and calling witnesses.

Just as significantly, legal experts said the move shows that Polish investigators recognize the validity of al-Nashiri's claims, a boost to his cause that comes as U.S. courts have refused to allow cases involving rendition to move forward for national security reasons.

"The prosecutor has clearly recognized the seriousness of al-Nashiri's claims, and we hope he will continue to press forward with this investigation," said Amrit Singh, senior legal officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative. "The individuals responsible for the torture and abuse endured by rendition victims on Polish soil must be held accountable."

Polish officials in power when the prison was in operation, early in the presidency George W. Bush, still deny its existence, but al-Nashiri's victim status weakens their position - and it raises the prospect that some of them could eventually be charged with abuse of power.

The investigation in Warsaw was launched by the Polish government two years ago in reaction to massive pressure from the European Union and the Council of Europe, a human rights group. Both organizations have said that evidence points to the complicity of Poland as well as Romania in the clandestine U.S. program, and they have urged both ex-communist nations to clarify their roles.

According to a motion that al-Nashiri's lawyers filed in Poland last month, they are seeking testimony from former CIA directors, including George Tenet, who was in charge of the agency when the Polish site operated, as well as John McLaughlin, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden.

They also want testimony from two former U.S. ambassadors to Poland and from the pilots of the various flights that ferried the suspects in and out of Poland.

It's unclear how likely any of them are to testify.

Former U.S. intelligence officials have said the spy agency operated the site, code-named "Quartz," in northern Poland from December 2002 to the fall of 2003. Human rights activists and lawyers for al-Nashiri say their client was tortured in Poland and denied a fair trial for nine years.

Mikolaj Pietrzak

Mikolaj Pietrzak, Polish lawyer for Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi national accused in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole warship in a Yemeni harbor, speaks to the Associated Press in his office in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

Al-Nashiri's lawyers believe he hasn't been tried yet because he was subjected to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques in Poland and Thailand, making any evidence obtained at the black sites problematic to introduce in a court of law.

Former U.S. intelligence officials have told the AP that Al-Nashiri was captured in Dubai in November 2002 and taken first to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit. After a brief stay, he was flown to a CIA prison in Thailand and then transported to Poland on Dec. 5, 2002, along with accused terrorist Abu Zubayda, the former officials said.

According to the former intelligence officials and an internal CIA special review of the program, al-Nashiri was subjected to harsh interrogation methods. They say that an agency officer named Albert revved a bitless power drill near al-Nashiri's while he was naked and hooded in the Polish prison. The CIA officer also took an unloaded semiautomatic handgun to the cell where al-Nashiri was shackled and racked the weapon's ammunition chamber once or twice next to his head, according to the review.

The U.S. officials spoke about the prison and al-Nashiri's case on condition of anonymity because details of the secret program remain classified. The details of where the incidents took place and who was involved were first reported by the AP in September.

According to the former officials and flight records, al-Nashiri was moved from Poland to Rabat, Morocco, on June 6, 2003, and then moved repeatedly to and from CIA sites in Guantanamo, Rabat and Romania until he was finally returned to Guantanamo in September 2006.

Al-Nashiri's case is in limbo as the White House decides whether to prosecute him in a U.S. military or a federal civilian court.

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Goldman reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Monika Scislowska contributed reporting from Warsaw.