National Security

Bin Laden's ex-driver Hamdan sends news from Yemen

At a time when the Pentagon is trying to figure out how many freed Guantanamo detainees have resumed their jihad comes news of a different sort from Yemen:

Osama bin Laden's former driver has a new son.

The boy was born Jan. 11 in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, to Salim Hamdan and his wife — 14 months after Hamdan was returned to Yemen from Guantanamo, where he was convicted of war crimes in August 2008.

The boy's birthday fell on the eighth anniversary of the opening of the prison camps in southeast Cuba that President Barack Obama wants to close.

"Mom and baby boy are both healthy and Salim is very excited,'' said Seattle attorney Harry Schneider, whose Perkins Coie law firm defended the driver in both military and civilian courts, free of cost.

Hamdan, now 40, was convicted by a military jury of providing material support for terrorism and conspiracy. Prosecutors were stunned, however, when that same jury rejected their call for a 30-year sentence and ordered him to serve just five and a half months, plus the time he'd already spent at Guantanamo.

Now Schneider and other volunteer lawyers want those convictions overturned. They argued before a military appeals panel Jan. 26 that conspiracy and material support for terrorism were not war crimes at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — nor at the time of Hamdan's capture by U.S. troops two months later in Afghanistan.

The case of the $200-a-month driver with a fourth-grade education confounded the Bush administration for years.

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Hamdan and his lawyers, and found the Bush administration's scheme for trying suspected terrorists before military commission unconstitutional and sent the White House to Congress for permission to hold the trials.

Two years later, his truncated sentence meant Hamdan went home to his wife and two daughters before President George W. Bush left office.

Since then, Hamdan has been spurning requests for interviews and cobbling together a living as a part-time driver. He doesn't own a car and is a "devoted, doting father,'' Schneider said.

The snapshot of family life comes as a time when a far more sinister Yemen is in the spotlight — as the suspected training ground of the alleged Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who attempted to detonate explosives sewn into his underwear aboard a Detroit-bound flight, has been linked to a Yemeni offshoot of al Qaida that's emerged in videotapes featuring two angry former Guantanamo detainees, Saudi citizens like bin Laden.

In the aftermath, Obama halted the transfer of Yemeni detainees, who make up nearly half of the Guantanamo population.

Schneider and fellow Seattle attorney Joseph McMillan say Hamdan is a role model for re-entry into society.

The lawyers have long argued that Hamdan worked for the wealthy bin Laden to escape from a poverty that permitted him to marry and have a family, not for ideology.

"They know that he's not a threat to anyone, or to the regime,'' McMillan said by telephone from Seattle, referring to the Yemeni government. "His focus is, and always has been, trying to make a living for his family.''

A three-judge Pentagon panel heard the appeal of Hamdan's convictions at the U.S. Court for Military Commissions Review Jan. 26. It could take months to rule.

(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)


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