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Bin Laden's driver knew 9/11 target, lawyer says

As testimony begins in the war crimes trial, the prosecution paints Salim Ahmed Hamdan as an Al Qaeda insider.

July 23, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — Prosecution and defense lawyers painted broadly conflicting pictures of Salim Ahmed Hamdan on Tuesday, with the government vowing to prove that the former driver for Osama bin Laden remained a trusted aide and confidant through Al Qaeda's most heinous crimes.

In their opening statement to a Navy judge and six-member military jury at the first war crimes trial here, lawyers for Hamdan cast the 38-year-old Yemeni as a husband and father trying to provide for his family on a $200-a-month job in Bin Laden's motor pool.

The bemused defendant, who laughed at the judge's jokes and furrowed his brow over some of the prosecution's evidence, is not the only one on trial. With both presumptive presidential nominees vowing to close the jail and offshore courthouse and move any prosecutions to U.S. courts, the future of the tribunal known as the Office of Military Commissions is being weighed along with Hamdan's guilt or innocence.

Three U.S. Supreme Court rulings have accorded rights to Guantanamo detainees that their military jailers and prosecutors had sought to deny. With just 265 left of the nearly 800 men who have been brought here since January 2002, pressure has been mounting to release those unlikely to face war crimes charges and try the few dozen viable cases stateside.

In his opening statement earlier Tuesday, the lead prosecutor contended that Hamdan had learned details of the Sept. 11 attacks, including the intended target of the fourth hijacked plane, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

"Virtually no one knew the intended target, but the accused knew," Navy Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Stone told the court, saying Hamdan had admitted to interrogators that he overheard Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri talking about attack plans while he drove them. But chief prosecutor Army Col. Lawrence Morris indicated at a news conference later that the eavesdropping occurred after Sept. 11, not before.

As the government began calling witnesses against Hamdan, two U.S. soldiers testified about the tense and chaotic backdrop to his capture and early interrogation near Kandahar, Afghanistan, including three violent incidents involving cars stopped at a vehicle checkpoint in the village of Takhteh Pol. Prosecutors have alleged that two SA-7 surface-to-air missiles were found there in Hamdan's car.

Maj. Henry Smith, who was in command of 15 U.S. soldiers and at least 600 Afghans, told the court that he had seen Hamdan at the checkpoint, where he was arrested Nov. 24, 2001. Smith testified that a man behind the wheel of a Toyota was stopped at the roadblock by local Afghans, who chased down the fleeing driver and dragged him to a local jail. Smith said in direct testimony that the man was Hamdan. But on cross-examination, Smith admitted that he didn't know what car the fleeing man had exited.

A U.S. Special Forces soldier identified only as Sgt. Maj. A conceded that he hadn't witnessed the checkpoint encounter but said that the local Afghans were thoroughly trustworthy.

Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, Hamdan's military defense lawyer, showed the senior enlisted man in Delta Force a classified military cable in which Afghanistan-based forces reported to higher-ups that two missiles had been found in a vehicle seized at the same checkpoint that day but from Arab suspects who had fought back and been killed.

One of Hamdan's interrogators, FBI Al Qaeda expert Ali Soufan, was called to the stand for what is expected to be lengthy testimony on Hamdan's relationship with Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda kingpins. While Soufan has described the driver as a follower, he has also said that Hamdan swore an oath of loyalty to Bin Laden.

One of Hamdan's civilian lawyers, Harry H. Schneider Jr., described his client as an impoverished and orphaned youth who turned a skill in mechanics into a job abroad to support his family.

"The evidence is that he worked for wages. He didn't wage attacks on America," said Schneider, who is representing Hamdan pro bono. "He had a job because he had to earn a living, not because he had a jihad against America."

Mizer has signaled that he will present testimony by some of the accused Sept. 11 suspects held here to underscore that Hamdan, who has a fourth-grade education, was a hired hand in the organization, not a committed ideologist.

The Guantanamo forum, even after the start of its first trial, remains the target of intense criticism. The head of the war crimes tribunal defense team, Army Col. Steven David, blasted the offshore judicial system at a news conference after Tuesday's testimony, pointing to the government's delay in handing over important evidence months after being ordered to by the presiding judge, Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred.

The judge has refused to allow testimony relating to the withheld evidence -- something that could benefit Hamdan, since the jurors can't be told about several reported statements and confessions.

David also said the Pentagon had denied the defense what it needed to properly defend Hamdan.

But chief prosecutor Morris defended the commissions as "the most just war crimes trial that anybody has ever seen."

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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