Bin Laden's driver charged at first tribunal

 

crosenberg@miamiherald.com

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Opening the United States' first war crimes trial since World War II, the government on Tuesday charged a wiry Yemeni who worked as Osama bin Laden's chauffeur with conspiracy as a member of the al Qaeda terrorism network.

The first Military Commission in the 3-year-old war on terrorism also marked the first time a captive held in the Guantánamo prison was publicly displayed and formally charged.

Salim Hamdan, 34, did not enter a plea, pending defense arguments expected in November. But he has admitted through his lawyer to driving bin Laden around his farm in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

He denies joining his boss' worldwide movement, trying to kill an American or carrying a gun - before or after the Sept. 11 attacks that prompted President Bush to declare a war on terrorism and set up the offshore interrogation prison camp, and, ultimately, this week's tribunals.

LED INTO COURT

At first seeming dazed, Hamdan, who has been held for more than two years, flashed a toothy grin when he was led unshackled into the courtroom, guarded by two soldiers in battle dress.

With a trim, wispy mustache and receding hairline, he wore traditional clothes his family had sent from home: a floor-length white gown topped by a black-and-brown-checked jacket and a white woven head scarf, called a keffiyah, draped over his shoulders.

He stood beside his Pentagon defense lawyer, dressed in Navy whites, while he heard the charges against him read in Arabic. When he was asked whether he understood the charges of conspiracy to murder, attack civilians and commit terrorism, he grinned again.

Hamdan knows the charges carry sentences of life in prison, said his lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, who described Hamdan's grins as expressing a mix of confusion over the concept of conspiracy and joy at being with others after months of solitary confinement.

Pentagon charge sheets alleged that Hamdan, who has a fourth-grade education, a wife and two daughters, transported weapons to al Qaeda operatives, trained at an al Qaeda camp and drove in convoys that carried bin Laden. They do not accuse him of any specific violence or planning any attacks.

Swift, who is paid by the Pentagon, says his client is eager to prove his innocence. Meanwhile, he is challenging the military trials in civilian U.S. courts.

The daylong session lasted more than eight hours and mostly was consumed with sparring between Swift and the presiding officer, Army Col. Peter Brownback III, over the suitability of the six military officers judging the case.

It reflected the controversy that surrounds these trials, a Bush administration fusion of pre-World War II military justice and post-Sept. 11 security rules that permit both secret and hearsay evidence.

"We've spent a lot of money to get six people here to look at Mr. Hamdan across this table, " Brownback said of the five commission members and single alternate who will decide both the law and facts in the case. "We're here so six people can carry out the president's order - to provide a fair trial for Mr. Hamdan."

MEMBERS CHALLENGED

Swift formally challenged five panel members, including Brownback, saying their military pasts might preclude objectivity. Brownback rejected his challenges but noted that a final decision will be made in Washington by retired Maj. Gen. John Altenburg Jr., a lawyer appointed to oversee the trials by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Two panel members served as senior officers in the late 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan - one on the ground and another at Central Command headquarters in Tampa - overseeing operations that captured thousands of detainees, toppled the Taliban and transferred hundreds to this Navy base in southeastern Cuba.

Hamdan was among them.

A third member, a Marine colonel, revealed that a member of his reserve regiment was a firefighter killed in the World Trade Center attack. He attended the firefighter's funeral and went to ground zero two weeks after the attack.

"It was a sad sight, a lot of destruction there. . . . I would imagine that everyone who saw it was angry, " said Col. Jack K. Sparks Jr., chief of staff of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

"It would seem to me that somewhere in the officers corps we can pull someone who was not an intelligence officer in Afghanistan, was not involved in detainee operations, who did not go to the 9/11 site two weeks afterwards, " Swift said. "Because it's not a random drawing of your friends and neighbors, it should be cleaner. It should be squeaky clean."

The alternate, Army Lt. Col. Curt S. Cooper, admitted under questioning that he had not read the Geneva Conventions that protect the rights of prisoners of war.

"Do you know what the Geneva Convention is, sir?" Swift asked.

"Not specifically, no sir. That's being honest, " Cooper replied.

Also on the panel are Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy Toomey, who served as an intelligence officer for three months in Afghanistan; Marine Col. R. Thomas Bright, who ran the Centcom nerve center that organized detainee flights from Afghanistan to Guantánamo; and Air Force Col. Christopher Bogdan, whose seat was not challenged.

The trials continue today with a preliminary hearing for David Hicks, 29, of Adelaide, Australia, a one-time Outback cowboy who ran away from home and converted to Islam. His father arrived at the base Tuesday to see his son for the first time in years.

TIGHT SECURITY

The session was held amid tight security. Dogs sniffed through the courtroom and security officers turned it into a virtual safe, impenetrable to Cuban electronic sensors routinely aimed at the 101-year-old Navy base.

American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero called the session "window dressing" for a wider problem - the continued interrogation and detention without charge of about 580 other men from 34 nations.

"Even though we are witnessing four men in commissions this week, there are 581 other individuals who aren't part of this process. It's not clear what will happen to them at all."

THE MILITARY COMMISSIONS

* Five U.S. military officers will rule on the guilt or innocence of foreigners held at Guantánamo who are accused of war crimes.

* One is Army Col. Peter Brownback III, a retired military judge called back into service.

* Brownback has the power to close the trial to shield classified and secret information from public view, and to retroactively declare information heard in open court "protected, " banning journalists from reporting it.

* By design, the other four commission members do not have legal backgrounds. They are three colonels and a lieutenant colonel, all from either the Air Force or Marines.

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