TERROR TRIAL Suspect disputes job was beyond menial
Yemeni officials report the defendant had joined Islamic Jihad.
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) -- Salim Ahmed Hamdan says he earned a pittance for his family as Osama bin Laden's driver before attacks Sept. 11, 2001. But U.S. officials allege he did more, serving as the Al-Qaida leader's bodyguard and delivering weapons to his operatives.
The 34-year-old Yemeni and Guantanamo terror suspect is to be arraigned today before a U.S. military commission that allows for secret evidence and no federal appeals, the first person to go before such a tribunal since World War II.
"This process goes against everything that we fought for in the history of the United States," said Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, Hamdan's attorney who is likely to challenge the government's classification of his client as an enemy combatant. Hamdan denies supporting terrorism.
What could happen
Depending upon what Swift has up his sleeve or what surprises the prosecutors hold, Hamdan could choose not to enter a plea and his attorney could ask for more time to prepare. It is also possible Swift will 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.
The Pentagon, in a charge sheet, alleged Hamdan, who is also known as Saqr al Jaddawi, was a bodyguard and personal driver for bin Laden between February 1996 and Nov. 24, 2001.
The Pentagon also alleged that he transported weapons to Al-Qaida operatives, trained at an Al-Qaida 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.
With a fourth-grade education and few skills to interpret legal minutia, Hamdan doesn't understand why he's being charged as anything but a civilian, Swift said. Hamden has said he earned a pittance by driving bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks, but he denies supporting terrorism.
Reportedly joined group
Yemeni security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hamdan joined a Yemeni branch of the Egyptian militant group Islamic Jihad before Al-Qaida was formed. A faction of Egyptian Islamic Jihad is reportedly led by bin Laden's chief aide, Ayman al-Zawahri, and merged with organizations led by bin Laden and others to form Al-Qaida in 1998.
Security officials said Hamdan was not a senior member of Islamic Jihad and he left Yemen for Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Hamdan's family in Yemen has refused to comment on the charges.
Representatives from Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First and the American Bar Association were offered seats as observers for the pretrial hearings, but military officials have refused to let them tour the prison.
The five groups said they will watch the hearings and will try to keep a representative present for all of the commission proceedings.
"The observers were invited for the military commissions," said Col. David McWilliams, spokesman for the commissions and preliminary hearings. No other explanation was offered.
"Part of my job is going to be looking at all the processes, and I must express some disappointment that it did not start in the manner I would have liked," said Neal R. Sonnett, with the American Bar Association, an observer.
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.
Has access to prisoners
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 the Al-Qaida terror network.
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 U.S. President George W. Bush will be fair.
Bush, as well as senior U.S. officials, has repeatedly called the men "terrorists."