Bin Laden's driver first inmate charged

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The Independent US

In the first hearing of its kind for 60 years, a driver for Osama bin Laden was formally charged at a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay yesterday with conspiring to commit terrorism.

In the first hearing of its kind for 60 years, a driver for Osama bin Laden was formally charged at a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay yesterday with conspiring to commit terrorism.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a 34-year-old Yemeni, was brought before the tribunal wearing a flowing white robe and a brown jacket, without shackles or handcuffs, to hear the charges.

Mr Hamdan, who has reportedly admitted driving Bin Laden but denied participating in terrorism, appeared to chuckle as he listened through headphones to a translator relaying the allegations to him in Arabic.

Mr Hamdan's lawyer used the pretrial hearing to challenge the legal basis for the tribunal. At one point the lawyer, Lt Cmdr Charlie Swift, questioned the motives of the military judge overseeing the hearing. "This process goes against everything that we fought for in the history of the United States," Mr Smith said.

The hearing at the prison camp at the US naval base on the southern tip of Cuba was the beginning of the latest stage in the tortuous process of dealing with about 600 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Many of them, rounded up in the aftermath of the US war in Afghanistan, have been held since the beginning of 2002.

Mr Hamdan was the first of four prisoners due to be charged this week when they appear before a panel of five military officers. A further 11 have been selected, including two Britons. During the hearing Mr Swift asked the other members of the panel to leave while he questioned the presiding officer, Col Peter Brownback, about his qualifications and motivations. Asked why he had volunteered, Mr Brownback said that he had retired in 1999 and had 10 years' experience as a military judge.

"I thought I was good at it, and knowing the stresses and constraints brought on our military ... and recognising retired people could serve, I volunteered," he said. Asked whether he thought the proceedings were lawful, Mr Brownback chose not to answer.

The US has portrayed Mr Hamdan not only as Bin Laden's driver but as his bodyguard, and said that he delivered weapons to al-Qa'ida operatives. Mr Hamdan was formally charged with conspiracy as an al-Qa'ida member to commit war crimes, including attacking civilians and civilian targets, murder, destroying property and terrorism.

Mr Swift has argued that Mr Hamdan was a pilgrim who took a job at Bin Laden's farm on his way to Tajikistan in 1996 or 1997. He said that the defendant had no knowledge of al-Qa'ida activities and had never taken up arms against the US.

He said it was wrong for the commission to go ahead when no review had been held to decide whether Mr Hamdan had been properly classified as an "enemy combatant". He also pointed out that the Supreme Court had ruled this summer that the prisoners had a right to challenge their detention in the US civilian courts.

In an affidavit filed earlier this year, Mr Hamdan said his incarceration in solitary confinement was affecting him psychologically. "I have not been permitted to see the sun or hear other people outside ... or talk with other people. I am alone except for a guard," he said. "One month is like a year here, and I have considered pleading guilty in order to get out of here."

Human rights groups have condemned the tribunals, in which the defendants have few legal rights and cannot see evidence that the hearing considers to be classified. "It's brand new, it's broken and it's flawed," said Neal Sonnett, an observer for the American Bar Association.

The Associated Press said that Mr Hamdan, also known as Saqr al-Jaddawi, joined the Yemeni branch of the Egyptian militant group Islamic Jihad before al-Qa'ida was formed. He is said to have been bin Laden's driver between February 1996 and 24 November, 2001.

THE FIRST FOUR SUSPECTS

DAVID HICKS

From Adelaide in Australia, 29. Hicks is charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes, aiding the enemy and attempted murder for allegedly helping al-Qa'ida fight coalition forces in Afghanistan. A Muslim convert, he allegedly fought in Kosovo in 1999 and then with the Taliban in Afghanistan until his capture in late 2001.

IBRAHIM AHMED MAHMOUD AL QOSI

From Sudan but little else, including his age, is known. He is accused of being al-Qa'ida's accountant, paymaster and supply chief in the 1990s. He allegedly served as Osama bin Laden's bodyguard and driver. He is also accused of training in bomb-making and assassination techniques.

SALIM AHMED HAMDAN

From Yemen, 34. Charged with conspiracy as an al-Qa'ida member to commit war crimes, including murder. He is accused of being Osama bin Laden's bodyguard and driver but is not accused of taking part in specific acts of violence or operational planning. Mr Hamdan says he was Bin Laden's driver, but denies taking part in terrorism.

ALI HAMZA AHMAD SULAYMAN AL-BAHLUL

From Yemen, 33, married with four children. He is charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes, including murder. He is said to have been Bin Laden's bodyguard in 2001. He is accused of working in the al-Qa'ida media operation.

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