Pentagon re-charges bin Laden's driver

 

crosenberg@miamiherald.com

The Pentagon Thursday formally filed new charges against a Yemeni man held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who worked as Osama bin Laden's driver in Afghanistan -- and then successfully challenged President Bush's military commissions at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The five-page charge sheet alleges, among other things, that Salim Ahmed Hamdan, 36, served as the al Qaeda founder's bodyguard.

If convicted, Hamdan could be sentenced to life imprisonment, presumably at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, where he has been held in legal limbo for five years.

But the Defense Department said in its announcement that it waived any effort to seek Hamdan's execution for a war-crimes conviction.

Civilian and military U.S. defense attorneys brought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006, successfully arguing that President Bush didn't at the time have the authority to stage military commissions that differed with tribunals spelled out by the U.S. Code for Military Justice.

''The convening authority referred charges of conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism against Hamdan, a non-capital case,'' said the statement from the Defense Department. It also released the charge sheets issued by Susan J. Crawford, a civilian former military appeals court judge who is now the Pentagon's overseer of military commissions.

Hamdan, a father of two with a fourth-grade education, has admitted through his attorney to working as a $200-a-month driver for bin Laden, on his Kandahar, Afghanistan, farm, before the 9/11 attacks. But Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, his Pentagon appointed-lawyer, says Hamdan has denied joining al Qaeda or engaging in terrorism.

This time, the Pentagon is charging him under a new, similar tribunal format approved by the GOP-led Congress under the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

''The government's pretty clearly decided to thumb their nose at the Supreme Court,'' said Swift, reached moments after the Pentagon released the charges. He accused the Bush administration of retroactively changing U.S. law to create a new category of war crime through the act. ''When the Supreme Court said that Hamdan has the right to a regular trial, you try existing crimes, not make new ones,'' he said.

The career naval officer added that he would travel to the remote Navy base ''as soon as possible'' to meet with his client.

Two other men have been charged at the new war court:

Australian David Hicks, 31, who has admitted to being an al Qaeda foot soldier in exchange for a nine-month sentence, most served in his homeland. He is expected to soon depart the remote U.S. Navy base for Australia, where he will be released by New Year's Eve after serving the remainder of his sentence.

Canadian Omar Khadr, 20, accused of the grenade-killing of a U.S. Special Forces medic in a 2002 firefight in Afghanistan.

Khadr, who was 15 at the time of the combat, faced a June 4 arraignment hearing at the remote base in southeast Cuba, where he has also been held for nearly five years.

It was not immediately clear Thursday whether Swift would defend Hamdan at a trial.

Swift was passed over for promotion to a full rank of commander last year, after winning the Supreme Court case, and is due to retire from the military the first week in June.

But he dismissed the notion that Hicks' guilty plea to one of the charges Hamdan also faces -- providing material support for terrorism -- would strengthen the Bush administration's case in pressing forward with the first U.S. war crimes tribunals since World War II.

''Hicks chose to plead to it, but not raise the challenge,'' Swift said. ``It doesn't set a precedent. Because one Australian chose to take nine months and go home doesn't make it legitimate.''

Like Hicks, Hamdan is accused of having trained at an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.

Further, his charge sheet alleges that in addition to serving as a driver and bodyguard for bin Laden, throughout Afghanistan, Hamdan was a weapons courier to both Taliban and al Qaeda members.

It alleges he delivered one or more surface-to-air missiles, knowing they ``were to be used for an act of terrorism.''

See the Pentagon announcement: www.defenselink.mil/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=10857

Read more In the Courts stories from the Miami Herald

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