Bin Laden driver guilty at Guantanamo trial

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The Independent US

Osama bin Laden's former driver was found guilty today of terrorism at the first US war crimes trial since the Second World War.

Salim Hamdan was convicted by a jury of American military officers following a two-week trial at the US Navy base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

He was accused of transporting missiles for al Qaida and helping bin Laden to escape US retribution following the 9/11 terror attacks by driving him around Afghanistan.

Hamdan, a Yemeni, faces a maximum life sentence after being convicted of providing material support to terrorism.

But he was cleared of other terror charges, including conspiracy, following around eight hours of jury deliberations over three days.

Hamdan was captured at a roadblock in southern Afghanistan in November 2001, with two surface-to-air missiles in the car and taken to Guantanamo Bay in May 2002.

During the trial, US prosecutors told the jury Hamdan played a "vital role" in the conspiracy behind the 11 September 2001 attacks.

US Department of Justice prosecutor John Murphy said: "Al Qaida aimed to literally take down the West, to kill thousands, and they have; to create economic havoc, and they have.

"They needed enthusiastic, uncontrollably enthusiastic warriors, like that accused right there, Salim Hamdan."

Mr Murphy said Hamdan was a loyal supporter of bin Laden who protected the al-Qa'ida leader despite knowing his goals included killing Americans.

But Lieutenant Commander Brian Mizer, Hamdan's Pentagon-appointed defence lawyer, said: "This is a classic case of guilt by association.

"Mr Hamdan is not an al Qaida warrior, he is not al-Qa'ida's last line of defence - he's not even an al Qaida member."

He told the jury Hamdan was a low-level employee who worked for wages, not to wage war on America.

Hamdan admitted working for bin Laden in Afghanistan from 1997 to 2001 for 200 dollars (£100) a month, but denied being part of al Qaida or taking part in any attacks.

Lawyers for Hamdan said not one witness had testified that he played any part in terrorist attacks.

Lt Cmdr Mizer had told reporters earlier that the rules of the tribunal system at the US Navy base in south east Cuba appeared to be designed to achieve convictions.

"I don't know if the panel can render fair what has already happened," he said.

The judge allowed evidence that would not have been admitted by any civilian or military US court and interrogations at the centre of the US government's case were tainted by coercive tactics, including sleep deprivation and solitary confinement, Hamdan's lawyers said.

About 270 suspects remain in detention in Guantanamo Bay and human rights campaigners have accused the court of operating in a legal black hole.

Hamdan held his head in his hands and wept at the defence table after a Navy captain on the jury read the decision.

He faced eight counts of supporting terrorism and two counts of conspiracy.

The five-man, one-woman jury convicted him on five counts of supporting terrorism and found him not guilty on three others.

He was cleared of both counts of conspiracy.

Jurors accepted the prosecution argument that Hamdan aided terrorism by serving as bin Laden's armed bodyguard and driver in Afghanistan while knowing that the al Qaida leader was plotting attacks against the US.

Deputy White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the Bush administration was pleased by the outcome and considered it a fair trial.

"The Military Commission system is a fair and appropriate legal process for prosecuting detainees alleged to have committed crimes against the United States or our interests," Mr Fratto said.

"We look forward to other cases moving forward to trial."

Yesterday, prosecutors claimed the judge, Navy Captain Keith Allred, made an error in his instructions to the jury.

The judge said it was a war crime for "unlawful combatants" to kill civilians but did not mention soldiers, which prosecutors said was incorrect.

But they later dropped their complaint, avoiding a mistrial.

Hamdan's conviction "under procedures that do not meet international fair trial standards compounds the injustice of his more than five years' unlawful detention in Guantanamo", human rights group Amnesty International said.

Rob Freer, the organisation's USA researcher, said: "We have consistently called for justice and security to be pursued within a framework of strict adherence to international law; however the US government has systematically failed in this regard.