U.S. unveils new court as Guantanamo trials resume

Sun Feb 3, 2008 5:14pm EST

(Corrects salary to monthly from weekly in paragraph 13)

By Jane Sutton

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba, Feb 3 (Reuters) - The U.S. military unveiled its new war crimes courtroom at Guantanamo Bay on Sunday as it prepared to resume pretrial hearings this week for Osama bin Laden's Yemeni driver and a young Canadian seeking protection as a child soldier.

The new court building looks like a khaki-colored metal warehouse on the outside and a traditional courtroom inside. It has enough room to simultaneously try up to six prisoners, lined up on faux-leather chairs at cherry-veneer tables.

It is part of a $12 million mobile court complex that includes prefabricated holding cells shipped by barge and cargo plane to the remote U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba, where the military holds about 275 captives in the Bush administration's campaign against terrorism.

The court complex is rising even as most of the candidates vying to succeed U.S. President George W. Bush in January 2008 have pledged to shut down the widely criticized Guantanamo prison camp. The court complex is designed to be moved elsewhere if it is no longer needed at Guantanamo.

"Whatever we're told to do, we can pick it up and move it to another location," said Army Col. Wendy Kelly, operations director for the Pentagon office overseeing the war court.

It will be ready for use in March and is part of the military's plan to try as many as 80 Guantanamo prisoners on war crimes charges. So far only one captive has been convicted at Guantanamo, an Australian who pleaded guilty to training with al Qaeda. After being held at Guantanamo for more than five years, he finished his nine-month sentence in his homeland in December.

HEARINGS THIS WEEK

Pretrial hearings resume in another courtroom this week for two other prisoners captured in Afghanistan after the United States invaded following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

Lawyers for Omar Khadr, a Canadian accused of throwing a grenade that killed one U.S. soldier and wounded others during a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002, will argue the charges should be dismissed because Khadr was 15 when captured and prosecuting him would violate international law protecting child soldiers.

Khadr, now 21, is the Toronto-born son of an alleged al Qaeda financier who often took his family to stay at bin Laden's compound in Afghanistan.

His lawyers also plan to argue Khadr cannot be tried under the 2006 law creating the Guantanamo court because the acts he is accused of were not classified as war crimes when they occurred.

Khadr, who was gravely wounded by U.S. soldiers during the firefight at a suspected al Qaeda compound, faces life in prison if convicted on charges that include murder and attempted murder of American soldiers. His lawyers said in trial documents that killing enemy soldiers had never before been recognized as a war crime and that "doing so is, almost by definition, a fundamental element of armed conflict."

Prosecutors will argue that Khadr was a terrorist and not a lawful combatant because he was not part of any regular national army that followed traditional laws of war. They said Khadr told interrogators he wanted "to kill lots of Americans" because he would collect a $1,500 reward for each one killed.

Bin Laden's driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan of Yemen, will also face hearings at Guantanamo this week on charges of conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism. He has said he never joined al Qaeda but acted as bin Laden's chauffeur because he needed the $200 monthly salary.

His lawyers will argue that prolonged solitary confinement at Guantanamo has impaired him mentally and compromised his ability to aid in his defense. A psychiatrist who works for the U.S. Veterans Administration has examined and diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression and said he has nightmares, panic attacks and paranoia.

Prosecutors say Hamdan, who is in his late 30s and faces life in prison if convicted, was a trusted al Qaeda member who transported weapons and helped bin Laden elude U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (Editing by Chris Wilson)




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