The Miami Herald

2008 | Lawyers get last word at driver's Gitmo trial

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- A military judge Monday instructed a jury of six U.S. military officers that four of them need to agree on a single charge to convict Osama bin Laden's driver at the first war crimes tribunal since World War II.

Salim Hamdan, 37, is accused of two charges -- conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism. The two charges break down to 10 specifications, ranging from transporting surface-to-air missiles to serving as bin Laden's bodyguard and his driver.

Conviction of any one specification carries a maximum of life in prison.

Like captives on U.S. soil, ''The law presumes the accused to be innocent of the charges against him,'' the trial judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, instructed the jury as he guided them through the seven-page charge sheet.

Hamdan never testified in his defense across two weeks of trial testimony.

But unlike suspects on U.S. soil, said Allred, Hamdan had no right to an attorney or right against self-incrimination during 18 months of military and civilian interrogations from Afghanistan to Guantánamo.

Echoing the trial themes in closing arguments, the Pentagon cast bin Laden's driver as an al Qaeda insider and the defense called him a Sept. 11 scapegoat.

''He's an al Qaeda warrior. He has wounded, and the people he has worked with have wounded the world,'' prosecutor John Murphy told the jury. ``You are the conscience of the community.''

Countered Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, on behalf of the $200-a-month driver: ``We will capture or kill Osama bin Laden some day. You should not punish the general's driver today with the crimes of the general.''

The jury is led by a U.S. Navy captain, the most senior military member in the group, who has commanded a ship at sea, and includes two colonels and three lieutenant colonels from the Army, Air Force and Marines.

Throughout it all, Hamdan sat at the defense table, a headset clamped over his white skullcap, his head scarf draped around his shoulders.

He wore traditional Yemeni garb, a white gown, topped by a sports jacket. He had white socks under sandals because of the air-conditioned chill of the specially built military commissions courtroom.

By the lunch recess, the prosecution had concluded its one-hour argument and the defense was about 30 minutes from its conclusion -- the last step toward deliberation.

And each side wove separate images of the accused, a Yemeni who traveled to Afghanistan to wage jihad with fellow Muslims in Tajikistan, and wound up in the service of the al Qaeda founder.

Murphy cast Hamdan as an insider with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of al Qaeda -- close ''to the very top of this terror pyramid'' -- by rising from ''simple farm driver and mechanic'' in 1996 to bin Laden's personal driver.

Significantly, Murphy said, Hamdan's job was to serve a critical role had the United States sought to retaliate against the 1998 U.S. embassies bombings in Kenya and Tanzania or the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks:

Were enemies to attack his motorcade, the prosecutor said the evidence showed, Hamdan was to drive off with the boss while the rest of the convoy stood their ground and fought off the attackers.

''This accused was al Qaeda's last line of defense should al Qaeda come under attack,'' said Murphy, on loan from the Department of Justice.

Moreover, the prosecutor said, he was captured on Nov. 24, 2001, with two surface-to-air missiles inside his car, defining that act alone as amounting to providing material support for terror.

Hamdan said from his very first interrogation that the car was borrowed, and the missiles were already in them.

Mizer, whom the Pentagon assigned to defend Hamdan, accused the government of overreaching.

He specifically cited secret testimony given at trial that, once taken to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan a month after his capture, Hamdan offered to provide U.S. interrogators with ``critical details.''

Moreover, he put a snapshot photo on the screen of a blindfolded Hamdan posing with U.S. agents and soldiers, whom he led on a tour of al Qaeda safe houses and compounds in Afghanistan.




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