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In First Court Appearance, U.S.S. Cole Case Judge Sets Goal of 2025 Trial

The News

An Army judge who was in law school at the time of the U.S.S. Cole bombing restarted hearings in the case on Monday and declared it was his intention to put the accused mastermind of the attack on trial at Guantánamo Bay in 2025. If he does, the trial would start a quarter century after the terrorist attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors off Aden, Yemen.

“I think it’s important to set benchmarks,” said Col. Matthew S. Fitzgerald, adding that he expected to serve as a military judge through 2026. He replaced the third judge to preside in the case at Guantánamo, Lanny J. Acosta Jr., who held his last hearing in the case in June.

The destroyer Cole, at port in Aden, Yemen, after it was heavily damaged in an attack in 2000.Credit…Dimitri Messinis/Associated Press

Why It Matters: Families are waiting

It has been a long wait for survivors of the attack and relatives of the sailors who were killed. A Saudi prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, has been in U.S. custody since 2002 and was first charged in 2011, making his 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 on Monday for the hearings and has traveled to Guantánamo about 10 times since 2012 to watch the legal wranglings.

“Even if it doesn’t happen next year, the fact that he’s willing to put a target date down, and make it a goal to shoot for is, I think, inspiring,” said Mr. Abney, a retired Navy master chief.

What’s Next: More hearings

Colonel Fitzgerald has 14 more weeks of hearings on the 2024 calendar. Pretrial matters yet to be tackled include the admissibility of some evidence, proposed witnesses, whether Mr. Nashiri can be tried by a military commission, how to seat a panel of military officers and whether Mr. Nashiri would be entitled to administrative credit if he is convicted but not sentenced to death.

Even before court began, the judge issued an order with deadlines for both sides to prepare for trial. The timetable orders lawyers for Mr. Nashiri to provide prosecutors with a list of witnesses they would want to call to testify at the trial by Jan. 9.

Facts to Keep in Mind: An appeal looms

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

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