Trial in the offing

Trial in the offing

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,22 December, 2000

YEMEN, eager to close the file on the bombing of the USS Cole, is hoping to put suspects on trial early in January. But the United States is urging less haste, on the grounds that more time is needed to complete investigations and prepare for a fair and credible trial.

The two men who carried out the attack in Aden harbour on October 12 are believed to have died in the explosion. Blood samples have been taken from people thought to be related to the bombers, and American experts are checking these against the DNA in "confetti-sized" fragments of human tissue recovered from the scene.

One of the bombers has been provisionally named as Abd al-Muhsin al-Taifi, a Yemeni national, possibly with Saudi connections, who was wanted for questioning about the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi.

Although six suspected accomplices have been reported to Yemen’s public prosecutor, reports suggest that not all will be tried and that some will give evidence as witnesses. Four more suspects - who may have fled the country - are still being sought.

Among the arrested suspects, the most important is Jamal al-Badawi, who told investigators he received telephone instructions for the bombing from a man named Mohammed Omar al-Harazi in the United Arab Emirates. Badawi said he had met Harazi in Afghanistan during the war but had not seen him since.

Harazi, who is believed to have financed the attack, is a Saudi citizen born to a Yemeni family in the Haraz region. He is said to have made regular visits to Aden from the UAE - most recently in October, though he disappeared four days before the bombing and is still at large.

Other arrested suspects are Jamal Ba Khorsh, who was apparently recruited to videotape the attack but failed to do so; Yasser al-Azzani, who entertained the bombers to lunch at his home in Aden on the day before the attack; Ahmad al-Shinni, about whom nothing has been disclosed; and two police officers from Lahej province who provided false identification and other documents for the bombers but may not have been aware of the plot.

Attention has also focused on Raed Hijazi, American citizen of Palestinian origin, who used to drive a taxi in Boston. He was recently handed over from Syria to Jordan, where he had been sentenced to death in his absence. The American authorities reportedly want to extradite him for trial in the US in connection with the Cole bombing.

After weeks of friction between the FBI and Yemeni investigators, both sides signed an agreement on procedure at the end of November. A State Department official said the deal "meets the need of both sides in terms of being able to conduct their investigations in a manner that is consistent with their legal principles."

This allows FBI investigators to attend interviews with witnesses and suspects, and to submit written questions. The FBI has also been given access to documents and has been allowed to take physical evidence for analysis.

However, the Americans still have concerns about the forthcoming trial, which will be conducted according to Islamic principles, without a jury. They have urged the Yemenis to ensure that the defendants have no grounds to complain about procedural irregularities, torture, or anything else what might damage the trial’s credibility.

Last year, the trial of 10 young men from Britain who were accused of plotting to cause explosions in Aden was marred by allegations from some of the defendants that they had been tortured and sexually abused.

One reason for the American presence at interrogations is to enable FBI officers to give evidence, if necessary, that statements were not extracted through torture.

The Americans have also indicated that they want as much evidence as possible to be handled in a way which makes it admissible in US courts, as well as those in Yemen. This may indicate that the Americans are contemplating bringing further charges against the suspects in the US, or that they believe some of the evidence might be useful in other terrorism cases in the future.

Latest US Navy estimates put the cost of repairing the damage to USS Cole at $240 million - $70 milllion more than originally thought. The high-technology guided missile destroyer cost $1 billion to build.