GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Osama bin Laden’s driver went on trial at Guantanamo on Monday in the first U.S. war crimes trial since World War Two, nearly seven years after the September 11 attacks prompted U.S. President George W. Bush to declare war on terrorism.
Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni who has admitted driving for the fugitive al Qaeda leader, pleaded not guilty to the charges before the controversial U.S. war court of conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism. He could face life in prison if convicted by a jury of U.S. military officers.
Judge Keith Allred, a Navy captain, seated a six-member jury after he and lawyers for the prosecution and defense questioned the officers on whether they could be impartial.
Several were eliminated after telling the court they were in or knew people who were in the Pentagon when a hijacked plane struck on September 11, 2001, including an Army colonel who said he watched the jetliner burn after escaping the building.
“It simply seems fair that he be excused in a proceeding where the attack on September 11 is going to be very much in evidence,” Allred said of that officer.
The first trial in the much-criticized military tribunal system got under way 6-1/2 years after the United States opened the prison camp in Cuba to jail suspected al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
Prosecutors contend Hamdan, who is in his late 30s, was close to al Qaeda’s inner circle and was on the way to a battle zone with two surface-to-air missiles in his car when he was captured in November 2001, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Hamdan’s lawyers say he is not a member of al Qaeda and was merely a driver and mechanic in bin Laden’s motor pool who needed the $200 monthly salary. He entered a formal not guilty plea through his lawyers.
The Guantanamo naval base became a lightning rod for anger against and criticism of the United States as detainees, held for years without charge as unlawful enemy combatants and denied the rights accorded to formal prisoners of war, complained of torture and abuse.
Human rights advocates condemned the legal system the Bush administration constructed after the September 11 attacks to try those charged with crimes. Defense lawyers say much of the evidence against their clients may have been extracted through coercion.
Hamdan was being tried in a hilltop courthouse overlooking Guantanamo Bay by a jury selected from a pool of 13 U.S. military officers flown in from around the world.
The final jury includes two Army lieutenant colonels, an Army colonel, a Navy captain, an Air Force colonel and a Marine lieutenant colonel. Allred ordered their identities kept secret.
During questioning of the prospective jurors, the judge asked if they would have any bias against Hamdan because he was Arab, Muslim or Yemeni. All said no.
One prospective juror who was eliminated, a Navy captain and former policeman, said he knew the commander of the USS Cole, which was struck by a suicide bombing in 2000 in a Yemeni port, killing 17 American sailors. “No one wants to see shipmates hurt and killed. It angered me,” he said.
Another was excused because he knew a prosecution witness.
One officer accepted for the panel was a helicopter pilot who said he had served in Panama, Iraq and Kosovo. Another was an Army officer who said he believed the war on terrorism had started in the 1990s, not after the September 11 attacks.
He said he worked in operations analysis and had seen classified reports on radical Islam. “Radical Islam exists and I believe we are at war with it,” he said.
Just before the start of trial, Allred granted Hamdan’s defense team a partial victory by throwing out some of his statements to interrogators, including those made at Bagram air field and in the Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan. But he allowed others to be entered as evidence.
About 265 prisoners remain at Guantanamo.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman