Bin Laden Chauffeur Charged With Conspiracy to Commit War Crimes

Posted on September 1, 2004 by LCT Staff - Also by this author - About the author

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) – Osama bin Laden's chauffeur was formally charged Aug. 24 at the first U.S. military tribunal to convene since World War II.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a 34-year-old Yemeni, declined to enter a plea until motions filed by his military-appointed lawyer attacking the legality of the proceeding are decided, probably in November.

The defendant's lawyer is challenging the panel's ability to serve and questioning the proceeding's fairness. Hamdan, who was not shackled and wore a flowing white robe, smiled occasionally as he listened to an Arabic interpreter through headphones, even after hearing charges that could bring life in prison: conspiracy to commit war crimes, including attacking civilians, murder and terrorism. He isn't charged with any specific violent act.

His lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, is challenging the right of four panel members and an alternate to serve. The challenges now go to the appointing authority, John D. Altenburg Jr., a retired Army general, to decide whether any of the commission members should be removed. It was unclear how soon he might rule.

Swift challenged the presiding officer, Army Col. Peter E. Brownback, a former military judge, on the grounds that he came out of retirement to serve on the panel and that he is not a standing member of a bar association.

He also raised questions about panel member Marine Col. Jack K. Sparks Jr., citing concerns over Sparks' feelings about a reservist under his command who died in the Sept. 11 terror attack on the World Trade Center in New York while working as a firefighter.

In addition, Swift was concerned that commission member Marine Col. R. Thomas Bright had said he was in charge of the logistics of moving detainees to Guantanamo; that Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy K. Toomey had been an intelligence officer in Afghanistan; and that an alternate, Army Lt. Col. Curt S. Cooper, expressed strong emotions about the 2001 attacks and concern for the safety of himself and his family.

Hamdan has said he earned a pittance for his family as bin Laden's driver before the Sept. 11 attacks, but he has denied involvement in terrorism. U.S. officials allege he served as the al-Qaida leader's bodyguard and delivered weapons to his operatives.

Brownback gave Swift until Oct. 1 to file arguments on nine motions he has pending before the panel and said the prosecution had to respond by Oct. 15.

Tribunal members and prosecutors asked the media not to use the names of panel members, fearing possible retribution. But their names were previously made public and have been published.

Brownback is the only member of commission to have formal legal training. Asked by Swift whether he thought the proceedings were legal, Brownback said he chose not to answer.

Swift asked panel members if they would consider the legality of President Bush's order setting up the commissions, which will allow secret evidence and no appeals.

During portions of the hearing, images of Hamdan appeared blurry on closed-circuit TV, and with a five-minute delay. News service reporters chose to watch from outside the courtroom via television so they could send updates quickly.

In a handout issued before the hearing, Swift said he planned to ask that the charges be dismissed. He said it was wrong for the commission to proceed without a separate ruling on Hamdan's status as an "enemy combatant," a classification that gives fewer legal protections than afforded prisoners of war.

That classification was used to justify trying Hamdan and others before military commissions rather than courts martial or U.S. civilian courts.

Hamdan and three other men arraigned last week face charges that could bring life in prison. Other detainees could face the death penalty.

The pretrial hearings were initially expected to last four days, but the first hearing progressed slowly due to delays for translation. It could be months before actual trials begin.

Hamdan could choose not to enter a plea. Swift has filed a lawsuit in U.S. civilian courts to be heard in Washington alleging illegality of the commissions.

Swift said Hamdan was a pilgrim who took a job at bin Laden's farm on his way to Tajikistan in 1996 or 1997, that he had no knowledge of bin Laden's activities and that he never took up arms against the United States.

The Pentagon alleges Hamdan, who is also known as Saqr al Jaddawi, was bin Laden's driver and bodyguard between February 1996 and Nov. 24, 2001.

The Pentagon also says 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.

Hamdan's family in Yemen has refused to comment.

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