Jury declares Yemeni inmate “guilty” in first Gitmo war-crimes trial [Archives:2008/1179/Front Page]

August 7 2008

By: Sarah Wolff
GUANTANAMO BAY, Aug. 6 )Yemeni national Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama Bin Laden's former driver, was declared guilty on five out of eight counts of providing material support to terrorists and conspiracy yesterday by a six-member military jury in the first war crimes trial to be held by the United States since World War II.

However, the jury was split when it came to convicting Hamdan of conspiracy and found him not guilty of two of the weightier conspiracy charges. Though he evaded the two strongest charges, Hamdan could still be sentenced to life in prison in the U.S. when the trial resumes. The defendant reportedly cried shortly after the verdict was announced.

The jury entered deliberations on Monday at the United States naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the trial took place. Sentencing was scheduled for yesterday afternoon, past press-time in Sana'a.

The defense team previously voiced their fears publicly that the military commission trial would produce a rubber-stamped guilty verdict for their client. A Pentagon spokesperson also announced Tuesday that Hamdan might remain in detention even if he was found not guilty, a fact that throws the reasons for conducting trials at all into question.

“Even if he is acquitted of the charges before him, he'd still be considered an enemy combatant and therefore, would continue to be subject to etention,” Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell said at a Defense Department press conference Tuesday. “In the near term, at least, we'd consider him an enemy combatant and still a danger and likely still would detain him for some period of time thereafter,” Morrell added.

Born in Hadramout in 1970, Hamdan worked for Bin Laden during the Al-Qaeda attacks on both the USS Cole destroyer in Aden in 2000 and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. soil. When U.S. forces captured Hamdan during their invasion of Afghanistan in November of 2001, he was caught by members of the Afghani Northern Alliance with two surface-to-air missiles in the trunk of his vehicle and turned over to the U.S.

Hamdan's case centered on the level of his involvement in Al-Qaeda, not whether or not he was a member of Al-Qaeda, since he had admitted to working for Bin Laden and swearing an oath of allegiance to him.

His defense attorneys portrayed him as a simple man seeking a decent salary and who had no knowledge of the terrorism plots his boss was planning.

Military prosecutors attempted to convince the jury that Hamdan wasn't just a mere errand boy, but intimately involved with the Al-Qaeda organization, even transporting weapons for the group on several occasions.

Hamdan said in April that he would boycott his trial, but in the end, he did appear in court, although he missed one day due to being taken to the hospital to treat a high fever.

On Tuesday, the prosecution asked the judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, to recall the jury and issue new instructions about what constitutes a war crime, according to a report in the Jurist, a U.S.-based web site that follows legal news.

Allred denied the request – which would have amounted to a mistrial – on the basis that the jury already had entered deliberations. The defense was reportedly satisfied with the judge's response.

Hamdan and his lawyers will still have the chance to appeal his verdict, which could very well end up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, as his lawsuit, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, did back in 2006.

In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of Hamdan, whose lawyers successfully challenged the military commissions system established by U.S. President George Bush and his administration. The decision stated that such military commissions were against both U.S. military procedure and Geneva Conventions.

However, the U.S. Congress subsequently passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, thereby allowing Hamdan's recent trial by military commission.

While other “high-profile” detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Yemeni Ramzi Bin Al-Shibh (Bin Al-Shaibah) have had hearings before military tribunals, Hamdan's was the first case to actually go to trial and Hamdan has the ignominious title of being the first person convicted by the trials. The Bush administration has been harangued by human rights groups and the international media, who claim that military commission trials are biased and deny defendants their legal rights

Around 100 Yemenis remain detained at Gitmo and statements by the U.S. Defense Department indicate that there will be approximately 20 more military commission trials like Hamdan's.

U.S. movie star and activist George Clooney recently acquired the rights to “The Challenge,” a book based on Hamdan's life. The book also covers the lawsuit Hamdan and his lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, brought to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 that established rights of habeas corpus – a defendant's right to know and challenge the charges against him – for those being held as enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay.

Clooney supposedly is considering playing the role of Swift in the movie version.