A Yemeni captive at the Guantánamo Bay prison admits he was Osama bin Laden's $200-a-month driver in Afghanistan but says he was neither a member of al Qaeda nor a terrorist, his Pentagon-appointed lawyer said for the first time Tuesday.
Salim Ahmed Salim Hamdan, 34, is now held in isolation at the terrorism prison in Cuba in segregated accommodations for prisoners facing possible military tribunals, said his lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift.
"He fully admits that he was an employee of Osama bin Laden" from 1997 until the U.S. attack on Afghanistan in 2001. "But he adamantly denies that he was ever a member of al Qaeda or engaged in any terrorist attack. He worked for Osama bin Laden solely for the purpose of supporting himself and his family."
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Swift spoke about Hamdan for the first time in an exclusive interview with The Herald. Pentagon policy has prohibited troops and civilians at the Guantánamo prison from disclosing specifics about prisoners.
He obtained special Pentagon clearances to discuss his client, whom he has met for about 25 hours using an Arabic translator - making him the first detainee at the terrorism prison publicly identified as having a link to bin Laden.
Starting in 1997, Hamdan worked for bin Laden on his farm in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, Swift said, and drove a Toyota pickup truck. He sometimes ferried farm workers to the fields and sometimes transported the al Qaeda mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
EIGHT YEARS AGO
Hamdan first went to Afghanistan in 1996, the lawyer said, intending to travel to Tajikistan to join Muslims there fighting former Soviet communists. He never made the trip but found the job with bin Laden that paid $200 a month, a huge sum for a poor Yemeni in impoverished Afghanistan.
"In respect to the prospect of a trial by military commission, he denies that he's a terrorist, al Qaeda or a combatant in the international conflict in Afghanistan. He is a civilian worker who was caught up in the war, " Swift said.
If his lawyer doesn't get a plea agreement with the U.S. government, Hamdan is likely to be among the first Guantánamo captives to face a military trial.
Air Force Col. Will Gunn, chief of the tribunal defense team, said this week that he assigned Swift to represent the Yemeni after prosecutors named Hamdan in a "target letter" as a candidate for "plea negotiations."
None of the four terrorism suspects at Guantánamo who have been given lawyers has been charged with any crime. Gunn said the charges have not been identified but they would likely involve "conspiracy."
Hamdan, who is married and has two daughters, ages 2 and 4, was captured by Afghan forces during the U.S. attacks, Swift said, and turned over to the Americans about two years ago.
At the time of his capture, he was alone and driving a borrowed car in a mountainous portion of Afghanistan near Pakistan. He had just evacuated his pregnant wife and daughter to the safety of Pakistan, the lawyer said, and was returning the car.
Swift said Pentagon rules prevented him from describing his client physically, saying how long Hamdan had been in the terror prison in southeastern Cuba or answering a question on whether the Yemeni had cooperated with his interrogators.
An early goal of the terrorism prison was gathering intelligence in the hunt for bin Laden. Commanders now say interrogations are more concerned with understanding the inner workings, appeal and training of al Qaeda.
Since Hamdan was given counsel Dec. 18, Swift said, he has been held in solitary confinement, segregated from the other Camp Delta prisoners in a windowless air-conditioned cell and permitted exercise only at night, "so he never sees the sun."
He suffers from arthritis, Swift said, which is aggravated by the prison's air conditioning.
"He gets cold, ironic in Cuba, " he said.
"I find him to be engaging and pleasant and upbeat at times, " he said. "His conditions make him despair at times."
Hamdan has a fourth-grade education but has a sophisticated understanding of the difference between a military and a civilian court proceeding, Swift said. And he wants a civilian trial.
"He has asked me to implore the president to allow him a civilian trial in which he may demonstrate his innocence, " the lawyer said. "He's adamant that he is a civilian and belongs in a civilian court."
The Pentagon has created a military defense team for the Guantánamo tribunals even before a decision on whether to charge any of the 650 prisoners there.
The team includes career Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine lawyers who usually defend U.S. servicemen.