July 17, 2008 / 9:58 PM / 9 years ago

Bin Laden driver headed for trial at Guantanamo

<p>U.S. Army troops stand guard over the Sally Port One entrance to Camp Delta where detainees are held at the United States Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba January 18, 2006.Joe Skipper</p>

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A Yemeni likely to be the first person tried before the U.S. war crimes court at Guantanamo naval base was more than just a driver for Osama bin Laden, U.S. agents said on Thursday.

Salim Hamdan transported weapons and said he swore allegiance to and got his paycheck directly from the al Qaeda leader, the agents told a judge in pretrial hearings at the isolated U.S. base in Cuba. Hamdan was captured in Afghanistan in 2001.

Lawyers for the accused terrorist facing the first U.S. war crimes tribunals since World War Two say Hamdan was just a driver and mechanic in bin Laden's motor pool who did the job because he needed the $200 monthly paycheck.

In testimony stretching over two days, FBI and other federal agents said Hamdan pointed them to the location of bin Laden's safe houses and training camps in Afghanistan.

"Salim described pledging a sacred oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden," said Robert McFadden, an agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service who interrogated Hamdan at Guantanamo in 2003.

He pointed to Hamdan and bin Laden together in a photograph shown to the court, noting both carried rifles.

Hamdan is scheduled to go to trial on Monday on charges of conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists. A federal court in Washington rejected efforts by his lawyers to have the trial delayed on Thursday. Hamdan, who is in his late 30s, could face life in prison.

The U.S. war crimes court set up to try terrorism suspects after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States has been deemed unfair by human and legal rights groups.

Hamdan's attorneys had argued that a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month gave Guantanamo prisoners -- about 265 at the moment, many of them held for years without being charged -- fundamental constitutional rights.

But U.S. District Judge James Robertson backed the government's argument that a 2006 law supported by U.S. President George W. Bush allows such challenges only after a trial.


Hamdan's lawyers still have legal motions pending with the Guantanamo court to halt the trial or exclude evidence but said they expected the proceeding to go ahead next week.

"We're disappointed in the court's decision but we look forward to, in the military commissions process, defending Mr. Hamdan and proving he is in fact a driver and a mechanic," Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, Hamdan's military lawyer, said.

Navy Capt. Keith Allred, the military judge, has denied several defense motions this week, one on the grounds that the charges against Hamdan were created after the alleged crimes were committed, one on hearsay evidence and another on a violation of the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause.

The defense still has a motion pending on Hamdan's right to a speedy trial. On that issue, prosecutor John Murphy told the war court that Hamdan, who has been held for nearly seven years since his capture in Afghanistan, had no such right.

"As an unlawful enemy combatant, he can be held for the duration of hostilities," he said.

Hamdan, who attended court in the traditional garb of white headdress and white robe, over which he wears a Western-style beige suit jacket, told the court this week he had been put in isolation, deprived of sleep before interrogations and sexually humiliated by a female agent.

Nine U.S. agents who testified on Tuesday and Wednesday all denied they had witnessed any abuse of Hamdan. One said he knew Hamdan had been in solitary confinement at Guantanamo.

The U.S. agents described Hamdan -- who allegedly helped bin Laden escape Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001 -- as cooperative. They said he helped them by showing them the al Qaeda leader's houses and training camps and drawing maps of his movements after the 9-11 attacks.

"He said bin Laden paid him (personally)," agent Dwight Locklear said.

Editing by Michael Christie and Patricia Zengerle

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