Associated Press Writer
7:04 AM PDT, August 24, 2004
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba —
The Guantanamo terror suspect who once worked for Osama bin Laden is to be
arraigned Tuesday before a U.S. military commission that allows for secret
evidence and no federal appeals, the first person to go before such a tribunal
since World War II.
Salim Ahmed Hamdan, 34, says he earned a pittance for his family as bin Laden's driver prior to the Sept. 11 attack. But U.S. officials allege the Yemeni did more, serving as the al-Qaida leader's bodyguard and delivering weapons to his operatives.
"This process goes against everything that we fought for in the history of the United States," said Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, Hamdan's attorney who is likely to challenge the government's classification of his client as an enemy combatant. Hamdan denies supporting terrorism.
Depending upon what Swift has up his sleeve or what surprises the prosecutors hold, Hamdan could choose not to enter a plea and his attorney could ask for more time to prepare. It is also possible Swift will question whether th e five-member commission panel's presiding officer, U.S. Army Col. Peter E. Brownback, has the capacity to judge the proceedings fairly.
The Pentagon, in a charge sheet, alleged Hamdan, who is also known as Saqr al Jaddawi, was a bodyguard and personal driver for bin Laden between February 1996 and Nov. 24, 2001.
The Pentagon also alleged that he transported weapons to al-Qaida operatives, trained at an al-Qaida camp and drove in convoys that carried bin Laden. It does not say he took part in any specific acts of violence or participated in the operational planning of any attacks.
With a fourth-grade education and few skills to interpret legal minutia, Hamdan doesn't understand why he's being charged as anything but a civilian, Swift says. Hamden has said he earned a pittance by driving bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks, but he denies supporting terrorism.
Yemeni security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hamdan joined a Yemeni branch of the Egyptian milit ant group Islamic Jihad before al-Qaida was formed. A faction of Egyptian Islamic Jihad 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.
Security officials said Hamdan was not a senior member of Islamic Jihad and he left Yemen for Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Hamdan's family in Yemen has refused to comment on the charges.
Representatives from Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First and the American Bar Association were offered seats as observers for the pretrial hearings, but military officials have refused to let them tour the prison.
The five groups said they will watch the hearings and will try to keep a representative present for all of the commission proceedings.
"The observers were invited for the military commissions," said Col. David McWilliams, spokesman for the commissions and preliminary hearings. No other explanation was offered.
"Part of my job is going to be looking at all the processes, and I must express some disappointment that it did not start in the manner I would have liked," said Neal R. Sonnett, with the American Bar Association, an observer.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was weighing whether to send an observer to the commission hearings, the first such proceedings since World War II.
The Geneva-based group has been the only independent organization to have access to the 585 prisoners at the U.S. base accused of links to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban or the al-Qaida terror network.
Human rights groups have criticized holding 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 U.S. President George W. 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.
"We have major problems with fact that there is no right of appeal outside the chain of command," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU and one of the people who will observe this week's hearings, expected to last four days.
Rules of evidence used in U.S. courts and courts-martial will not apply in the commissions. Some groups have argued that the broad parameters allow the use of evidence obtained during interrogations. Some men 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 to go before the hearings this week are Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul, 33, also 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 as well as 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 commissions begin.