Osama Driver Arraigned At Gitmo

The Pentagon says it will keep prisoners in Guantanamo until the war on terror is won. But inside Camp Delta, both prisoners and guards know that could be a long time. CBS

Osama bin Laden's chauffeur was arraigned Tuesday in the first U.S. military commissions since World War II, appearing at a pretrial hearing as his defense lawyer challenged the process as unfair.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a 34-year-old Yemeni, smiled as he appeared without handcuffs or shackles. Instead of prison garb, the bearded detainee wore a flowing white robe and a tan suit jacket with a long shawl over his shoulders.

His lawyers have said he earned a pittance for his family as bin Laden's driver prior to the Sept. 11 attack. But U.S. officials allege he did more, serving as the al Qaeda leader's bodyguard and delivering weapons to his operatives.

Hamdan was the first detainee to appear before a U.S. military commission that allows for secret evidence and no federal appeals, in the first such tribunal since World War II.

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.

"There's virtually no chance he can get a fair trial," Navy Lieutenant Commander Philip Sundel, Bahlul's Pentagon appointed lawyer, told CBS News Correspondent Barry Bagnato.

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.

"This process goes against everything that we fought for in the history of the United States," Hamdan's attorney Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift said beforehand, challenging the government's classification of his client as an "enemy combatant." Hamdan denies supporting terrorism.

Swift said in a handout released before the hearing Tuesday that he planned to ask that the charges be dismissed since the commissions were going ahead without giving his client an opportunity to contest his classification as an "enemy combatant" in U.S. civilian courts.

"The defense believes that not only is this a breach of faith with the civilian courts but if the commission proceedings occur on Tuesday, that they will substantially prejudice any chance Mr. Hamdan might have at a fair hearing before the combatant status review panel as well as during subsequent commission proceedings," Swift said.

He also planned to question panel members' qualifications and practices, as well as their views on Islam and military operations against al Qaeda and the ousted Taliban of Afghanistan.

Hamdan could choose not to enter a plea and his attorney could ask for more time to prepare. Swift also could question whether the five-member commission panel's presiding officer, U.S. Army Col. Peter E. Brownback, has the capacity to judge the proceedings fairly.

Swift has filed a lawsuit in civilian courts, alleging that the military commissions are a violation of U.S. and international law.

Swift said beforehand that he would ask that charges be dismissed and that proceedings be halted pending a ruling in federal courts on the hearings' legality.

"Mr. Hamdan has languished in solitary confinement without good cause for more than eight months awaiting a hearing," Swift said in his statement.

Swift contends 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 case is to be heard in Washington, D.C.

According to court documents unsealed at the request of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and others, Hamdan complained he was "going crazy" after being held in solitary confinement.

"I have not been permitted to see the sun or hear other people outside ... or talk with other people. I am alone except for a guard," Hamdan said February in a court affidavit that was first sealed, then made classified in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

"One month is like a year here, and I have considered pleading guilty in order to get out of here," Hamdan said after two months in solitary.

The Pentagon, in a charge sheet, alleged 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 alleged that he transported weapons to al Qaeda operatives, trained at an al Qaeda 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.

Yemeni security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hamdan joined a Yemeni branch of the Egyptian militant group Islamic Jihad before al Qaeda 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 Qaeda in 1998.

Representatives from Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First and the American Bar Association are being allowed to watch the proceedings but have been refused access to see the prison camp.

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 al Qaeda.

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 President Bush will be fair.

"The same people writing the rules for this process are the same people who want to convict my client," said Hicks' attorney, Marine Major Michael Mori. "They have a goal and they want to achieve it and unfortunately, an independent justice system would interfere with that goal."

Hamdan and the three others being arraigned this week face life in prison, though some defendants could face the death penalty.

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.

It could be months before the actual commissions begin.
  • Lloyd Vries

Comments