Mental health issue stalls hearings for USS Cole bomb suspect

* Defendant has torture-induced PTSD, lawyers say

* He will undergo mental competency exam

* Cole survivor says he still has nightmares

By Jane Sutton

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba, Feb 5 (Reuters) - P retrial hearings for an alleged al Qaeda chieftain were halted for at least two months on Tuesday while doctors assess whether he is mentally fit to stand trial at Guantanamo on charges of orchestrating a deadly attack on a U.S. warship.

Lawyers for Saudi defendant Abd al Rahim al Nashiri have never claimed he is mentally incompetent now or that he was when the USS Cole was bombed off Yemen in 2000. But once they said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by torture in secret CIA prisons, prosecutors said they were bound by the trial rules to ask that he undergo a mental competency exam.

The judge granted the request and a pretrial hearing that was supposed to last four days in the war crimes tribunal at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba ended after a day and a half. Without first making sure Nashiri is competent to understand the proceedings and assist in his defense, there was a chance that any conviction could be overturned on appeal.

"It was important that we stop it, important that we do this right," said the chief prosecutor, Brigadier General Mark Martins.

The judge set the next hearing for April 14 for Nashiri, who is accused of directing the suicide bombers who rammed a boat full of explosives into the Cole, killing 17 U.S. sailors and wounding 37. He could be executed if convicted on charges that include murder and attempted murder.

He has been in U.S. custody since his arrest in Dubai in 2002 and was held for four years in secret CIA prisons before being sent to Guantanamo in 2006.

The CIA has acknowledged that interrogators threatened to rape Nashiri's mother in his presence, subjected him to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding and threatened him with a gun and a power drill while he was naked and shackled.

On Tuesday, his lawyers said Nashiri arrived at the courtroom with red bruises on his wrists. The judge granted defense lawyers' request to see a videotape of his transfer from his cell to determine whether guards had roughed him up. Nashiri, a small 48-year-old man with short, black hair, has come to court voluntarily and respectfully answered the judge's questions. He has denied involvement with al Qaeda or the Cole bombing.

The final witness in the hearing, Dr. Vincent Iacopino, advised that the doctors who examine him be given access to any medical or other records that might help corroborate the cause of any mental health issues.

Iacopino is a senior medical adviser for Physicians for Human Rights and played a key role in drafting the Istanbul Protocol, international standards for evaluating and treating torture victims. Testifying by videolink from a U.S. military base, he advised that the doctors who evaluate Nashiri be culturally sensitive, try to build his trust, and conduct their interviews outside the presence of jailers if possible.

The attention to Nashiri's rights was hard to bear for some of the spectators at the hearing, a small group of sailors who survived the attack on the Cole and relatives of those who died aboard the ship.

"What about the torture that we have gone through?" asked Joe Pelly, a now-retired senior chief petty officer who helped remove his colleagues' shredded remains from the bloodied decks.

"I have my nightmares. I have PTSD, My family has to deal with that. I'm on medication. It doesn't get better." Pelly is eagerly awaiting the doctors' findings on Nashiri. "If he's competent, let's nail his ass," he said. (Editing by Eric Walsh)