August 24, 2004
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba - Osama bin Laden's chauffeur was officially charged Tuesday in the first U.S. military tribunal since World War II, appearing at a pretrial hearing where his lawyer challenged the process as unfair.
Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a 34-year-old Yemeni, wore headphones to hear an interpreter. He asked for the allegations against him to be repeated, then appeared to chuckle and smile after the charges of conspiracy as an al-Qaida member to commit war crimes, including murder, were explained a second time.
Hamdan has said he earned a pittance for his family as Osama bin Laden's driver before the Sept. 11 attacks and denies taking part in terrorist activities. U.S. officials allege he served as the al-Qaida leader's bodyguard and delivered weapons to his operatives.
The Pentagon alleges that Hamdan - also known as Saqr al Jaddawi - was bin Laden's driver and bodyguard between February 1996 and Nov. 24, 2001.
It says he transported weapons to al-Qaida operatives, trained at an al-Qaida camp and drove in convoys that carried bin Laden. The charge sheet does not accuse him in any specific acts of violence or the operational planning of any attacks.
The bearded detainee also smiled as he first appeared in the court, without handcuffs or shackles and wearing a flowing white robe and a tan suit jacket with a long shawl.
Hamdan was the first detainee to appear before a U.S. military commission that allows for secret evidence and no federal appeals, the only such proceeding since World War II.
"This process goes against everything we fought for in the history of the United States," Hamdan's attorney Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift said beforehand, challenging the government's classification of his client as an "enemy combatant."
Dodds reports the defense will contest the claim that Salim Ahmed Hamdan of Yemen was bin Laden's bodyguard.
Swift said he plans to ask that charges be dismissed, because Hamdan was given no opportunity to contest his "enemy combatant" classification in U.S. civilian courts - an opportunity he says the Department of Justice promised him. Swift also has filed a lawsuit in civilian courts, alleging that the military commissions violate U.S. and international law.
"Mr. Hamdan has languished in solitary confinement without good cause for more than eight months awaiting a hearing," Swift said in his statement.
In the hearing, he began questioning panel members' qualifications and practices, as well as their views on Islam and military operations against al-Qaida and the ousted Taliban of Afghanistan. He started by asking the commission's presiding officer, U.S. Army Col. Peter E. Brownback, a retired military judge, to explain why he was serving in the tribunal.
"I thought I was good at it, and knowing the stresses and constraints brought on our military ... I volunteered," Brownback answered.
Swift says his client was a pilgrim who took a job at bin Laden's farm on his way to Tajikistan in 1996 or 1997. He says Hamden had no knowledge of bin Laden's terror activities and never took up arms against the United States. The case is to be heard in Washington, D.C.
According to unsealed court documents, Hamdan complained he was "going crazy" after being held in solitary confinement.
"I have not been permitted to see the sun or hear other people outside ... or talk with other people. I am alone except for a guard," Hamdan said in an affidavit in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle.
"One month is like a year here, and I have considered pleading guilty in order to get out of here," Hamdan said after two months.
Before his transfer to Guantanamo, Hamdan was held for six months in U.S. custody in Afghanistan. There, he said he was beaten, forced to lie still for days, dressed in overalls in freezing temperatures, and shown a gun while being threatened with death and torture.
Yemeni security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hamdan joined a Yemeni branch of the Egyptian militant group Islamic Jihad before al-Qaida was formed. A faction of the group is allegedly led by bin Laden's chief aide, Ayman al-Zawahri, and merged with organizations led by bin Laden and others to form al-Qaida in 1998.
Representatives from Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First and the American Bar Association are being allowed to watch the proceedings but have been refused access to the prison camp.
"I think the defense has some strong arguments they'll be presenting," Neal R. Sonnett, of the American Bar Association, told The Associated Press.
Observers, who met defense attorneys Monday, have complained that they have not been allowed to speak to panel members or prosecutors.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was weighing whether to send an observer. The Geneva-based group is the only independent organization given access to the 585 prisoners at the U.S. base accused of links to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban or al-Qaida.
Human rights groups have criticized the holding of the men as enemy combatants, a classification giving them fewer legal protections than prisoners of war. They also have questioned whether the commissions ordered by President Bush will be fair.
Bush, as well as senior U.S. officials, has repeatedly has called the men "terrorists."
Hamdan and three others being arraigned this week face life in prison, though some defendants could face the death penalty.
Rules of evidence used in U.S. courts and courts-martial will not apply in the commissions, and some groups have argued that the broad parameters allow the use of evidence obtained during interrogations. Some prisoners released from Guantanamo said they gave false confessions after prolonged detentions and interrogations lasting from two to 14 hours.
The two others charged with conspiracy and who face hearings this week are Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul, 33, of Yemen, and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi, born in 1960. The fourth defendant is David Hicks, 29, of Australia, who faces the broadest set of charges: conspiracy to commit war crimes, aiding the enemy, and attempted murder for allegedly firing at U.S. or coalition forces in Afghanistan before his capture.
It could be months before the actual tribunals begin.