By Lacey Ann Johnson
FORT MEADE, Md. (Reuters) - A military commander overseeing tribunals for al Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, exercised "unlawful influence" to speed up trial proceedings and must relinquish his authority over the cases, a military judge ruled on Monday.
The allegations about the commander arose last week during a pretrial hearing for Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi charged with orchestrating the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 sailors.
The top Pentagon official overseeing the war court, retired Marine Corps Major General Vaughn Ary, exercised unlawful influence in deciding military judges must relocate to the naval base in Cuba, Judge Air Force Colonel Vance Spath said in his ruling on Monday.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work signed the relocation order in January, but it was rescinded by the U.S. Defense Department on Friday in light of the unlawful influence allegations.
"Mr. Ary, although well intentioned, was concerned with influencing the process" to speed up the pace of litigations, said Spath, who is overseeing the Nashiri case.
"I can't stress enough … how improper it is for someone to impact the pace of the judiciary," Spath said. "Mr. Ary and his legal advisors are disqualified from taking any future action in this case."
Ary defended his recommendation and said he had not consulted with the judge advocates general. Prosecutors had backed Work's order.
In a memo obtained by the Miami Herald, Ary said the tribunals he oversaw met for just 34 days in 2014, at a cost of $78 million. At that rate, the expense of proceedings was $7,647 a minute, he wrote.
Spath announced that he would shorten next month's pre-trial hearing for Nashiri by one week.
The Secretary of Defense is tasked with assigning a new military commander to oversee the tribunals.
The hearing taking place at Guantanamo Bay prison was monitored via closed-circuit television at Fort Meade, outside Washington.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Alan Crosby)