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Saudi accused in U.S. warship bombing to keep his lawyer

The port side damage to the guided missile destroyer USS Cole is pictured after a bomb attack during a refueling operation in the port of Ad
The port side damage to the guided missile destroyer USS Cole is pictured after a bomb attack during a refueling operation in the port of Ad

By Medina Roshan

FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) - The Saudi man charged with masterminding the 2000 USS Cole suicide bombing that killed 17 U.S. sailors will keep his court-appointed lawyer despite reservations, he and his attorney told a U.S. military tribunal on Wednesday.

Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri, who has been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2006, told a preliminary hearing that he had wanted to dismiss the death penalty attorney, Richard Kammen, because he did not speak Arabic and was not able to tell him what transpired in closed-court sessions.

U.S. Army Colonel Judge James Pohl on Monday recessed the court for two days because Nashiri, 49, wanted his counsel changed, but both the defendant and his lawyer said the issues had been resolved.

"During the last two days, I discussed ... many matters with my representatives here. I figured out that it's better for me and my interests for my defense team to continue representing me," Nashiri said, speaking through an interpreter.

He is awaiting trial in September on suspicion of orchestrating the 2000 attack in which al Qaeda bombers steered a boat full of explosives into the U.S. warship while it refueled in the Yemeni port of Aden. The attack killed 17 U.S. sailors and wounded 37.

The hearing was held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay and transmitted via closed-circuit television to Fort Meade, an Army base outside Washington.

Nashiri could be executed if convicted on charges that include murder, conspiring with al Qaeda and attacking civilians. Kammen was appointed as his "learned counsel," or attorney with experience handling death penalty cases.

The alleged al Qaeda leader is also accused of staging a 2002 attack on a French oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden that killed a Bulgarian crewman.

Nashiri's lawyers also asked that the charges be dropped, citing "unlawful influence" from the administration of President George W. Bush. In 2002, Bush said in an address that Nashiri had orchestrated the Cole attack.

"You have to hand it to the Bush administration. When they unlawfully influence a trial, they don't hold back," said defense attorney Major Thomas Hurley.

Prosecutors called the allegations speculation and said Bush had not deliberately sought to influence the case.

Pohl agreed to review a defense motion about Nashiri's health care, which Kammen said was an issue. He described his client as "severely traumatized" and said he had trust issues.

Pohl had scheduled eight days of pretrial hearings starting on Monday, in part to determine what evidence will be admissible at trial.

Nashiri was captured in Dubai in 2002 and held in secret Central Intelligence Agency custody until his transfer to Guantanamo Bay in 2006. In early 2013, a military sanity board determined that he was competent to stand trial.

(Writing by Ian Simpson; Editing by Gunna Dickson)