Tue 24 August, 2004 22:51
By Jane Sutton
U.S. NAVAL BASE, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Reuters) - The United States has convened its first war crimes tribunal since World War Two and formally charged a Yemeni described as Osama bin Laden's driver with conspiracy to commit murder and terrorist acts as a member of al Qaeda.
Salim Ahmed Hamdan went before a controversial panel of five U.S. military officers for a pretrial hearing at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he has been held for more than two years.
The United States has charged four of the 585 al Qaeda or Taliban suspects at Guantanamo with conspiracy to commit war crimes, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Later this week the other three are scheduled to go before the tribunals authorised by President George W. Bush for trying foreign militants after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington that killed 3,000 people.
Human rights groups have criticised the United States for its treatment of the Guantanamo prisoners, m ost of whom were detained during the war in Afghanistan in late 2001 or early 2002 and have not been charged or given access to lawyers.
The United States alleges Hamdan met bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1996 and became a personal driver and bodyguard for him and other high-ranking al Qaeda members, and that he transported weapons for al Qaeda.
With close-cropped black hair and a bushy moustache, Hamdan wore an ankle-length white robe and tan suit jacket. He was not handcuffed or chained, and listened through earphones to an Arabic translator, smiling occasionally at his lawyer.
Hamdan's lawyer, Charles Swift, challenged the tribunal's authority to try him. Swift had earlier filed suit in U.S. federal court arguing that Bush lacked constitutional authority to order the tribunals.
Swift asked the tribunal's members if they were willing to consider whether they were acting on legal orders. Each of the five answered yes. As U.S. military officers, they do not have to follow orders they believe to be illega l.
One of the tribunal members is an intelligence officer who worked in Afghanistan during the war, and another helped arm unmanned Predator drones with hellfire missiles in the region.
Another is a Marine who commanded a New York reserve unit made up of firefighters and policemen and attended the funeral of one of his men who died in the September 11 attacks.
The tribunals were set up under rules the Pentagon said were aimed at providing fair trials while safeguarding information that threatens national security.
Defence lawyers are allowed to see and question secret evidence during the trials but the defendants are not. Swift asked if Hamdan could stay in the courtroom while tribunal members discussed their classified work.
The presiding officer refused because "the accused does not have the clearance to be exposed to that information."
Human rights groups called the trials flawed because there is no independent judicial review and because the process applies only to non-U.S. citizens. The Ameri can Bar Association said the rules were being written by Washington policymakers rather than military prosecutors, and ignored the long-standing judicial code used in other U.S. military courts.
"It's brand new, it's broken and it's flawed," said Neal Sonnett, who was observing the hearings for the association.
The last U.S. war crimes tribunals took place in 1942, when eight Germans were captured after sneaking into New York and Florida by submarine to blow up railroads, bridges and factories. Six were executed.
Hamdan was captured in November 2001 during the war in Afghanistan and is charged with a single count of conspiring to commit murder, attacks on civilians and terrorism. Swift has said Hamdan had no knowledge of al Qaeda's September 11 plan to attack the United States.
Two other defendants, Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al Bahlul of Yemen and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi of Sudan, are accused of being bin Laden bodyguards. The third defendant is David Hicks of Australia, who is accused of fighting for al Qaeda.