A war crimes trial targeting Osama bin Laden's former driver is now set to start Monday in Cuba, following a federal judge's ruling Thursday.
After a two-hour hearing, U.S. District Judge James Robertson declined Yemeni native Salim Hamdan's request to delay the trial, to be held at a heavily guarded U.S. military facility near Guantanamo Bay. Hamdan had challenged the trial, claiming he was being treated unconstitutionally.
“His claims of unlawfulness are all claims that should first be decided by the military commission and then raised on appeal,” Robertson said.
Robertson's ruling, unless reversed at the last minute by a potential appeal, sets the stage for a courtroom showdown that's been years in the making. Hamdan will be the first man formally tried by special military commission, established as a war-on-terror alternative to traditional civilian legal proceedings.
Now in his late 30s, Hamdan was seized by U.S. allied troops in Afghanistan in November 2001 and subsequently declared to be unlawful enemy combatant. Prosecutors have charged him with conspiracy and with providing material support to al-Qaida terrorists.
Prosecutors claim he was a key insider who helped protect bin Laden before, during and after a series of spectacular al-Qaida attacks on Western targets.
“It is the first contested war crimes trial since World War II,” noted the Pentagon's chief prosecutor, Army Col. Laurence Morris.
Twenty foreigners held at Guantanamo Bay now await their own military commission trials, and Morris said he would be bringing additional cases later this summer.
A clearly disappointed defense team said it would be ready to go to trial on Monday and expected Hamdan to attend despite an earlier threat to boycott.
Lawyers have long described the father of two daughters who has a fourth-grade education as an innocent, who merely worked for the al-Qaida leader for money, not ideology. He was paid $200 a week as bin Laden's driver, a job he held about five years.
“I think that the evidence will show that he's a salaried employee of Mr. bin Laden, not a member of al-Qaida, not an employee of al-Qaida,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, Hamdan's Pentagon-appointed defense counsel.
Hamdan's attorneys had wanted Robertson to postpone the military commission trial while a habeas corpus hearing examined Hamdan's legal status.
“The time to hear the challenge is now, not to wait until after the trial,” said Hamdan's Washington-based attorney, Georgetown University Law Center professor Neal Katyal. “A temporary pause is appropriate.”
In 2004, Robertson had accepted Hamdan's challenge to the military commissions established by the Bush administration. Since then, though, Congress has explicitly authorized the commissions that will be comprised of at least five military officers. Robertson concluded that congressional action put the commissions on stronger footing.