The Navy lawyer who has for years defended the man accused of orchestrating a 2000 terrorist bombing of a U.S. Navy warship off Yemen is leaving the case.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Reyes had been the first Pentagon defense counsel assigned to the case of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri after the Saudi captive got to Guantanamo in 2006 from waterboarding and other interrogation at secret CIA overseas prisons.
Now the accused al Qaida bomber has excused him from representation so that Reyes can study at Harvard Law School starting late this summer, said fellow defense counsel Rick Kammen.
Reyes' reassignment deprives the case of the powerful image of a U.S. Naval officer acting as the defense attorney for the man accused of orchestrating an attack on a U.S. Navy vessel in which 17 fellow U.S. sailors died.
Two suicide bombers exploded a bomb-laden skiff alongside the $1 billion USS Cole in October 2000 during a refueling stop in the port of Aden, Yemen.
Nashiri, who faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted at a Guantanamo trial, now has three other Pentagon paid lawyers on his case -- Kammen, an experienced capital defense lawyer from Indianapolis, Air Force Maj. Allison Danels, who's been on the case since late 2009, and now Air Force Maj. Daphne Jackson, who has yet to appear at the war court on Reyes' behalf.
"At this point certainly my relationship with the client is nearly as long as Steve's," said Kammen, who has been meeting with Nashiri at Guantanamo since 2008.
Plus Kammen said he expected another senior military lawyer to be added to the defense team, and that person may turn out to be a Naval officer as well. "Certainly the fact that Steve is in the Navy probably has some significant symbolic value," Kammen added.
Meantime, the next pre-trial hearing in the case is scheduled for June 11. One of the first orders of business will likely be whether the judge, Army Col. James Pohl, questions the Saudi captive on his willingness to let Reyes go. According to a document on the war court docket, Nashiri signed a release at Guantanamo on April 3. The chief defense counsel, Air Force Col. Karen Mayberry, released Reyes, who is already approved for promotion to commander, from the case April 22.
Another key issue in the case is a secret mental health examination the military conducted on Nashiri, at the request of prosecutors, to see if he's competent to stand trial. CIA agents waterboarded Nashiri, 48, threatened to rape his mother and held a cocked pistol to his head among other "enhanced interrogation techniques" to break him after his capture in the United Arab Emirates in November 2002. Defense lawyers have consistently argued that Nashiri suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from his torture, but never have said he was not competent to assist in his own defense.