/ 28 July 2008

Bin Laden’s driver on trial

The first United States military trial since the end of World War II began last week with Osama bin Laden’s former driver pleading not guilty in a case that could determine the future of scores of terrorism cases of detainees held in Guantánamo Bay.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan faces life in prison if convicted by a jury of military officers in the first trial to emerge from the Bush administration’s declared “war on terrorism”. The trial comes seven years after the September 11 attacks and six-and-a-half years after Guantánamo was opened to a chorus of international condemnation. The case is the first to be conducted through the controversial system of war-crimes courts established after 9/11.

Hamdan has been detained since he was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001. He was held for the first six months in US bases in Bagram and Kandahar and then at Guantánamo.

The Yemeni stands accused of conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism. Prosecutors allege he was a trained terrorist who acted as Bin Laden’s driver and bodyguard and was actively involved in the movement of weapons and senior al-Qaeda personnel.

The defence counters that Hamdan was a lowly operative who acted as Bin Laden’s driver and mechanic as he needed the money — about $200 a month.

The Hamdan trial is of legal and symbolic significance as it has become the conduit through which the tussle between the US judiciary and the Bush administration over Guantánamo has been played out. Only one Guantánamo prosecution has so far reached a conclusion — that of the Australian David Hicks, which stopped short of trial after he pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorism.

It was through Hamdan’s case that the US Supreme Court, in June 2006, ruled the military tribunals illegal because they violated the terms of the Geneva conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. The Bush administration riposted with the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which forced the trials to go ahead.

Human rights lawyers continue to protest about the legal system set up under that Act, which, they say, is a gross distortion of domestic US norms. Shayana Kadidal, a lawyer at the Centre for Constitutional Rights, said the main reason for the existence of the military trials was to allow the prosecution to present evidence acquired from suspects through torture.

In Hamdan’s case information obtained through coercive interrogations in Afghanistan has been ruled inadmissible, but prosecutors will be allowed to present his testimony from interrogations carried out at Guantánamo. The trial at is expected to last for up to a month. —