WASHINGTON — A Guantanamo Bay prisoner who was a relative of one of the Sept. 11 hijackers pleaded guilty Thursday in the bombing attack of a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen.
Top military officials pointed to the plea as an example of the efficiency of the war crimes tribunals at the U.S. military prison in Cuba, though critics noted that the majority of terrorism suspects held there are still in legal limbo awaiting trial.
Ahmed Darbi pleaded guilty during a court arraignment in what would have been the start of his military trial. He was captured in 2002 and transferred the following year to Guantanamo Bay. In return for his guilty plea, he will remain there until August 2017, and then probably be deported to his native Saudi Arabia to serve the rest of a 13- to 15-year sentence.
Permitted to wear a white shirt and green tie, the 39-year-old Darbi appeared before the judge, an Air Force colonel. He repeatedly answered “yes” to allegations that he was instrumental in securing supplies, boats and other materials for a series of terrorist attacks on ships, even though he did not personally carry out the 2002 bombing.
“Today’s outcome demonstrates that detainees at Guantanamo have access to legal counsel and to court,” Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor at the prison, said after the hearing.
But the military tribunal system has come under fire for being slow and cumbersome. Only a few trials have been held.
About 150 detainees remain at Guantanamo. The Obama administration had hoped to close the facility and transfer detainees to the U.S. for prosecution, but those plans ran into sharp bipartisan opposition.
Darbi will not formally be sentenced until August 2017, a sign he has agreed to cooperate with the government in similar terrorism cases there. In one of the most high-profile cases, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri faces the death penalty in the October 2000 bombing of the U.S. warship Cole and the deaths of 17 American sailors, also off Yemen.
In both English and Arabic, Darbi was led through a lengthy charge sheet that included attending Al Qaeda training camps, being personally “recommended” by Osama bin Laden and playing an instrumental role in arranging funds, materials and small boats for attacks on several ships.
Darbi is related by marriage to Khalid al Mihdhar, a hijacker on the Sept. 11 plane that hit the Pentagon. The two men married sisters in a 1998 double ceremony in Yemen, according to his military profile at Guantanamo Bay.
He was captured in June 2002 by authorities in Azerbaijan, turned over to U.S. officials and arrived in Guantanamo Bay in March 2003. He was in custody when the French oil tanker, the Limburg, was bombed in October 2002 off the shore of Yemen, killing a Bulgarian crewman and injuring several others.
But the judge, Air Force Col. Mark Allred, told Darbi that while “obviously you were not there and were somewhere else,” he nonetheless was admitting he helped carry out the bombing.
“Do you understand you are legally responsible?” the judge asked Darbi.
“Yes,” he said.
In a 2009 declaration, Darbi said that before he was sent to Guantanamo Bay he was held at the U.S. military base at Bagram, Afghanistan, and for a while was kept isolated, forced to kneel and stand for hours while handcuffed, and deprived of sleep.
“I was frightened and there were times I wished I would die,” he said in the written declaration given to human rights activists. “I felt that anything could happen to me and that everything was out of control.... Interrogators took my ‘confessions,’ pressuring me into making false statements about myself and others.”
At Guantanamo Bay, he said, he initially was interrogated for up to five and six hours a day, subjected to loud music and cold temperatures, threatened with rape and deprived of trips to the bathroom.
He added, “If I am released, I would like to go home to Saudi Arabia and move on with my life. I want to put this chapter behind me.”
[For the record, 1:39 p.m. Feb. 20: An earlier version of this post said closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention center encountered sharp Republican opposition. Actually, it’s sharp bipartisan opposition.]
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