New Guantanamo chief judge warns of change with Obama

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — An Army colonel who presided over the courts martial of several guards in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal is the new chief judge for military commissions, the Pentagon announced Monday.

Army Col. James Pohl replaced Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, who is retiring from service early next year.

Kohlmann had recently stepped down as trial judge in the Sept. 11 death penalty mass murder case of confessed al Qaeda kingpin Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators. He assigned another Army judge, Col. Stephen Henley, to replace him in that case.

Monday, Pohl presided at a pre-trial hearing in the case of an accused al Qaeda conspirator from Saudi Arabia, Ahmed Darbi, 33, and made no mention of his new assignment.

He did, however, remark that change could come to the war court following the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, who has pledged to close the Guantánamo prison camps.

''This court is aware that on Jan. 20 there will be a new commander-in-chief, which may or may not impact on these proceedings,'' he said, warning everyone to stay focused "unless and until a competent authority tells us not to.''

Pohl is a 1978 graduate of Pepperdine Law School. He has served as an Army lawyer since 1981, in the United States and in Germany, and as a military judge since 2000.

In presiding over the 2004 and 2005 courts martial of several U.S. Army guards, Pohl made headlines by declaring the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq a crime scene and forbade its demolition.

At the time, embarrassing snapshots of soldiers abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib had already leaked from an Army criminal investigation -- and politicians were calling for the razing of the prison that had also served as a torture chamber during Saddam Hussein's time.

At Guantanamo, Pohl has shown himself at the war court to be impatient with some prison camp rules that have impacted the court.

In March, he sternly informed prosecutors in the Darbi case that lawyers who defend prisoners before him should have easy access to their clients. He also declined to issue a ruling, sought by prison camp commanders, to order a tackle-and-shackle technique called ''Forced Cell Extraction'' on occasions when Darbi refused to come to court.

As a result, the Pentagon recently issued a formal instruction to the prison camps to force accused to the war court -- unless a judge rules otherwise.

On Monday, Pohl on several occasions let Darbi stand and argue a point at the defense table, dressed in a white prison-camp uniform. But Pohl reminded the Saudi's Yale law school defense attorney, Ramzi Kassem, that he is permitting the accused to speak at his own peril because anything he said in court could later be used at trial.