War crimes trial gets underway Monday at Guantanamo

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — After a Supreme Court victory and four years of war court hearings, much is known about Osama bin Laden's former driver, who is due to go on trial Monday.

Salim Hamdan earned $200 a month driving bin Laden around Afghanistan until his November 2001 capture. He has a fourth-grade education and a wife and two daughters, now living in his native Yemen. In court, he mostly wears a traditional gown topped by a suit jacket, white head scarf and bewildered expression.

Hamdan, 37, has even achieved a certain celebrity status — thanks to his team of American lawyers. They challenged President Bush's first effort to try him by military commission before the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2006 found the first war court unconstitutional.

Yet there is much more to learn about Hamdan, as the Pentagon finally gets to stage its first U.S. war crimes tribunal since World War II, in a butter-colored building near an abandoned airfield.

Some key questions:

-- Is Hamdan a war criminal?

He is charged with providing material support for terrorism as bin Laden's driver. Prosecutors allege he also served as a bodyguard and weapons courier for the al Qaeda founder, making him part of a broad global conspiracy that culminated with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed 2,973 people.

Pentagon prosecutors say his activities — acknowledged and alleged — amount to two violations of the laws of war under Congress' 2006 Military Commissions Act.

His lawyers seek to prove he was a nobody. ''The evidence will show he was a salaried employee of Mr. bin Laden, not a member of al Qaida,'' said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, Hamdan's Pentagon-appointed defense counsel. "We're looking forward to proving that he was in fact a driver and a mechanic.''

-- Who gets to decide?

The Pentagon is withholding the identities of the 13-member jury pool brought to Guantánamo this weekend. All are American military officers, and so are college educated. One came from overseas, the rest from U.S. bases.

They range in rank from the equivalent of an Army major to a Navy captain but are drawn from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Whether they served in Afghanistan or lost military friends or family members in the war on terror may emerge in Monday's jury selection process.

-- What happened to Hamdan for a month after his capture in southern Afghanistan?

Hamdan was captured in late November 2001 in Taktapol, Afghanistan, after dropping off some women and children at the Pakistan border to escape the advancing U.S. invasion.

But defense lawyers have made much of a gap — nearly all of December 2001 — in his U.S. military and Special Forces capture records, in a bid to exclude his interrogations from trial.

-- How much did he help U.S. forces?

FBI agents testifying at earlier hearings described Hamdan as a snitch. Before he was sent here in May 2002, he allegedly led U.S. forces in Afghanistan on a tour of former al Qaeda strongholds, and to the burial spot of a top al Qaida fighter.

-- What were his ties to al Qaida's inner circle?

The alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, said in a message to the court that, as U.S. forces were closing in on Kandahar, he instructed Hamdan to drive the women and children from danger. Hamdan's lawyers have Mohammed on their witness list along with six other former CIA-held captives at Guantanamo in their quest to show he was a driver for a paycheck, not ideology.

-- Will the world get to see his first interrogation?

Among trial evidence still withheld from public view is a video of Hamdan being questioned soon after his capture.

Those who have seen it describe Hamdan as sporting a huge black beard and Afghan-style attire and lying to his interrogator. Behind him is a masked man with a weapon.

U.S. officials have refused to release the video.

-- Will the trial judge exclude accounts of his interrogations?

Defense lawyers argue that Hamdan was never told of his right to remain silent, even by federal agents who interrogated him 30 months after his capture. They note that the U.S. Supreme Court has twice confirmed that Guantanamo war-on-terror detainees do have some rights.

But a prosecutor on loan to the war court from the Justice Department, John Murphy, says ''enemy combatants'' don't get read a so-called Miranda warning, like criminal suspects do on U.S. soil.

''We don't conduct wars the way the local police investigate crimes,'' he told the judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred. "We're catching people on the battlefield. Do we really want to put Miranda cards in the pockets of [U.S.] Special Forces? Does that make us safer? In this war on terrorism on Sept. 11, the battlefield was New York City and it was Pennsylvania and it was Washington. The battlefield was wherever a terrorist attack was occurring.''

-- Will Hamdan appear in court?

He has threatened a boycott. Were he to skip it, the trial predicted to last three weeks could go more quickly. Arabic-English translation slows testimony. Hamdan's lawyers want him at the defense table, and so do prosecutors, who say he should be compelled to be there. The judge has not said whether he would do it.

-- Will he get a life sentence if convicted?

Besides his guilt or innocence, his U.S. military jury also will decide his punishment. Defense lawyers claim his detention at Guantanamo has been largely punitive, virtual solitary confinement, and have asked his military judge to award him generous credit toward any conviction for each day he was held before trial in U.S. custody.

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