(AFP) – Aug 3, 2008
WASHINGTON (AFP) — A verdict awaits Osama bin Laden's former driver, Salim Hamdan, this week in a trial seen as a test of the controversial military tribunals set up by the US administration to try suspects in the "war on terror."
Accused of "conspiracy" and "material support to terrorism," the Yemeni national is the first inmate at the Guantanamo detention camp to face a full-scale trial before the special tribunals created by President George W. Bush.
Hamdan, who is about 40 years old, faces a possible sentence of life in prison if a jury of six military officers finds him guilty. He has already spent six years behind bars at the prison in the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
His lawyers have questioned the fairness of the proceedings and argued that Hamdan was an insignificant figure while employed by bin Laden from 1998 to 2001, saying he was not involved in any way in Al-Qaeda operations.
Several witnesses, including the alleged mastermind behind the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said Hamdan had no advance knowledge of attacks orchestrated by bin Laden against US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 or the attacks of September 11, 2001 against New York and Washington.
"He was not fit to plan or execute," Mohammed, who is also due to be tried by the tribunals, said in written testimony.
"Hamdan had no previous knowledge of the operation, or any other one," he wrote, adding: "He is fit to change trucks' tires, change oil filters, wash and clean cars."
But the prosecution had FBI agents and other federal investigators tell the tribunal that interrogations showed Hamdan had spent time at Al-Qaeda training camps, was part of an inner circle loyal to bin Laden and that he had helped transport weapons including surface-to-air missiles.
The interrogations cited in the case were conducted after Hamdan's capture in November 2001 in Afghanistan following the US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban regime there.
With closing arguments set for Monday, the military jurors could begin their deliberations on Monday amid predictions from human rights groups that Hamdan will likely be found guilty on at least some of the charges.
The Bush administration hopes the first war crimes trial since World War II will show critics at home and abroad that the Guantanamo tribunals, or commissions, offer the accused a fair process.
The administration has faced heated criticism over the Guantanamo prison, which has held detainees without charges for years, and the special tribunals which operate under different rules than regular civilian or military courts.
Only a small group of authorized observers and journalists are allowed into the small courtroom and military authorities prohibit the proceedings to be videotaped by any television news networks. Reporters can bring in a pencil and notebook, nothing else.
Hamdan sits alongside his attorneys, unrestrained by cuffs or shackles, with headphones over his white turban providing him with Arabic translation.
Captain Keith Allred, the military officer presiding over the case, has barred some statements from being admitted as evidence ruling they were obtained in coercive conditions while Hamdan was under US detention in Afghanistan.
Defense lawyers charged Hamdan was subjected to abuse while in US custody, including humiliating interrogation tactics and sleep deprivation.
But the Pentagon denies any abuse and says the military commissions offer a fair and just trial.
Five inmates at Guantanamo accused of participating in the September 11 attacks, including Mohammed, are scheduled to be tried in coming months.
And the trial of Omar Khadr, a Canadian national captured in Afghanistan when he was 15 years old, is also expected to go ahead later this year in Guantanamo.
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