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Archive for Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Trial could bring about prison’s close

August 6, 2008

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— The war crimes trial of a driver for Osama bin Laden could bring the United States closer to its goal of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The 10-day trial of Salim Hamdan, in a makeshift courtroom behind coils of razor wire, offers a road map for clarifying the legal status of nearly a third of the more than 250 men still held here.

The military jury considering the case, the first U.S. war crimes trial since World War II, adjourned Tuesday without reaching a verdict and was set to return today for a third day of deliberations.

Hamdan could face life in prison if convicted of any of the charges against him - two counts of conspiracy and eight counts of aiding terrorism.

About 80 of the roughly 265 men held at Guantanamo are slated to be prosecuted by military tribunals. Hamdan's case, stalled by years of legal challenges that reached the Supreme Court, signals those cases can move forward now.

The U.S. government has long said it wants to close Guantanamo but has struggled get other countries to take the remaining prisoners - those not slated for prosecution - off its hands.

For those who are prosecuted, convictions could make it easier to send detainees to mainland prisons to do their time. The chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo tribunals, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, has even predicted the trials would be like Space Shuttle launches - so routine the public mostly ignores them.

"We are confident that we can try cases to the highest standards of justice," Morris said while waiting for the jury, six U.S. military officers selected by the Pentagon, to reach a verdict.

The military has not said where Hamdan, a Yemeni in his late 30s with a fourth-grade education, would serve his sentence, and has suggested he could even be held at Guantanamo indefinitely.

Hamdan was never alleged to be more than a minor figure in al-Qaida, a chauffeur to bin Laden. He was captured at a roadblock in Afghanistan with two surface-to-air missiles in the car.

He is accused of conspiring with al-Qaida in its plots against the United States, but his lawyers say he was a low-level bin Laden employee who stayed with him for the $200-a-month salary.

A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, said the completion of the 10-day trial marks "a substantial sign of progress" in one aspect of the Bush administration's effort to eventually close Guantanamo.

The military has already released more than 500 Guantanamo detainees to their home countries, where most were eventually set free.

Some analysts, noting Hamdan's relatively minor status in al-Qaida, believe his trial is mostly an opening act, a demonstration of the U.S. legal system for prosecuting suspected terrorists.

The main event will be the prosecution, perhaps beginning by year's end, of five alleged plotters in the Sept. 11 attacks, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh.

"I assume the notion was, 'Let's see if we can get this engine to turn over,"' said Eugene Fidell, who teachers military law at Yale Law School. "I find it difficult to consider this as much of a landmark."

As a test run, the trial has drawn mixed reviews. Critics say it revealed the system's shortcomings by accepting secret testimony in a closed session, with journalists and other observers removed from the courtroom, and by using evidence from interrogations that defense lawyers say involved coercion.

The Hamdan trial also established some of the rights that Guantanamo prisoners will have before the tribunals. For example, the judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, rejected Hamdan's claims of certain constitutional rights, including the right to a speedy trial and to be advised of a right to remain silent - rulings that will be the subject of later appeals.

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