GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Osama bin Laden’s former driver and bodyguard was a trusted member of al Qaeda who helped his boss elude U.S. forces after the September 11 attacks and should face a war crimes trial before a special military tribunal, prosecutors said on Thursday.
But defense lawyers argued Salim Ahmed Hamdan was a civilian support person who should be treated as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Conventions and not tried by tribunals set up to judge prisoners in President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism.
The comments came in closing arguments after a judge heard the first witnesses in a U.S. military war crimes proceeding since the end of World War Two. The Guantanamo war crimes tribunals first convened in August 2004 but no witnesses were called in any previous hearings.
The testimony, in a marathon session lasting nearly 15 hours, was part of a pretrial hearing to determine whether Hamdan, a Yemeni who is about 37 years old, is an unlawful enemy combatant who can be tried on war crimes charges in a U.S. military tribunal established by Congress in 2006.
Hamdan “was a member of the club,” said Army Lt. Col. William Britt, the prosecutor, in his closing arguments. “He was a member of the team. Not a peripheral member. He was right there with Osama bin Laden.”
Hamdan drove bin Laden and his son Othman when they evacuated their compound near Kandahar in Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks, federal investigators testified.
Although not initially with bin Laden on September 11, Hamdan returned to bin Laden’s side and continued to drive him for weeks as he moved from city to city and house to house to avoid U.S. efforts to retaliate, said Robert McFadden, a Defense Department special agent who interviewed him.
Hamdan heard bin Laden say he had expected up to 1,500 deaths in the attacks but was pleased to learn there were many more, added FBI agent George Crouch Jr., who interviewed Hamdan separately at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
McFadden said Hamdan told him he had pledged an ongoing oath of allegiance or “bayat” to bin Laden. Asked if Hamdan had described how he felt while serving bin Laden, the Defense Department agent said, “uncontrollable enthusiasm.”
Army Maj. Henry Smith told the court that Hamdan was wearing civilian clothes with no military markings when he was captured on November 24, 2001, at a checkpoint near Kandahar while driving a car carrying two anti-aircraft rockets without the launching mechanism.
Hamdan is accused of acting as Osama bin Laden’s driver and bodyguard and transporting weapons for al Qaeda. He is charged with conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism. He has acknowledged working as bin Laden’s driver but denies taking part in any terrorist attacks.
The judge was expected to issue a ruling on Hamdan’s status after attorneys for both sides resolved several issues still outstanding at the close of the pretrial hearing.
Dr. Brian Williams, an expert on Islamic jihadist groups, testified that al Qaeda had two parts: one committed to international suicide attacks, and another, Ansar, which was a uniformed unit integrated into the Taliban army.
He said core al Qaeda members tended to be from well-to-do families, college educated and able to speak Western languages. The defense showed video of a man Williams said was Hamdan wearing camouflage fatigues that he said were consistent with an Ansar fighter.
Defense lawyers for Hamdan said he was a civilian driver and support worker who should be considered a prisoner of war and handled according to the Geneva Conventions, which would require a court martial if the military wants to try him for war crimes.
“At best Mr. Hamdan has been linked to the Ansars,” said civilian attorney Joseph McMillan in closing arguments for the defense. “The Ansars were a lawful combat unit and Mr. Hamdan would be entitled to prisoner of war status.”
This is the military’s third attempt to prosecute Hamdan on war crimes charges and comes six months after the judge in the case, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, dropped the previous charges against him.
Allred ruled in June that Hamdan had only been declared an enemy combatant and said he had no authority to decide whether the defendant was a lawful or unlawful combatant. An appeals court in September ruled he did have the authority, which led to the hearing on Thursday to determine his status.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham