First Guantánamo war-crimes trial gets under way

The first United States war-crimes trial since World War II began on Monday at the US navy base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, nearly seven years after the September 11 2001 attacks prompted President George Bush to declare war on terrorism.

Osama bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, faces charges of conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism, and could face life in prison if convicted by a jury of US military officers.

“This military commission is assembled,” Judge Keith Allred said after the potential jurors were sworn in.

“You must make your determination whether or not he is guilty based solely on the evidence presented here in court and the instructions I will give you,” Allred instructed jurors. “You must impartially hear the evidence.”

The first trial in the controversial war-crimes court got under way six-and-a-half years after the US opened the prison camp in Cuba to jail suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Prosecutors contend Hamdan, a Yemeni in his late 30s, was close to al-Qaeda’s inner circle and was on the way to a battle zone with two surface-to-air missiles in his car when he was captured in November 2001, shortly after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Hamdan’s lawyers say he is not a member of al-Qaeda, and was merely a driver and mechanic in Bin Laden’s motor pool who needed the $200 monthly salary.

Hamdan is being tried in a hilltop courthouse overlooking Guantánamo Bay by a jury selected from a pool of 13 US military officers flown in from around the world. The panel must comprise at least five members.

Human rights questions
Human rights advocates have complained about the conditions under which approximately 265 prisoners are held at the Guantánamo prison and about the legal system the Bush administration constructed after the September 11 attacks to try those charged with crimes.

The Guantánamo naval base became a lightning rod for anger against and criticism of the US as detainees, held for years without charge and denied the rights accorded to formal prisoners of war, complained of torture and abuse.

Defence lawyers also say much of the evidence against their clients may have been extracted through coercion.

Just before the start of trial, Allred granted Hamdan’s defence team a partial victory by throwing out some of his statements to interrogators, but allowed other statements to be entered as evidence.

Allred said he was suppressing Hamdan’s statements made at the US base at Bagram, and those made in the Panjsher Valley, both in Afghanistan.

Only one case at Guantánamo has been resolved.
Australian captive David Hicks pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorism in a deal that averted a trial and limited his sentence to nine months in prison.

Among the other detainees at the Guantánamo prison camp are alleged September 11 plotters Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi and Walid bin Attash.

They are charged with conspiring with al-Qaeda to murder civilians in the 2001 attacks that launched the global war on terrorism and with 2 973 counts of murder, one for each person killed when hijacked passenger planes slammed into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

Lawyers for Hamdan plan to call Mohammed and Bin Attash as witnesses in his trial to support his contention that he was not a member of al-Qaeda.—Reuters

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