April 29, 2008 / 12:07 AM / 10 years ago

CORRECTION: Guantanamo cases aimed to pique U.S. imagination

(Corrects 2nd and 4th paragraphs to show statement came from a different prosecutor, Lt. Col. William Britt, not prosecutor Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Stone.)

In this courtroom sketch reviewed and cleared for release by U.S. military officials, Guantanamo detainee Salim Ahmed Hamdan (L) sits flanked by his legal team as army prosecutor Lieutenant-Colonel William Britt speaks at a podium inside a courtroom during a U.S. Military Tribunal arraignment at Guantanamo U.S. Naval Base in Cuba June 4, 2007. REUTERS/Janet Hamlin/Pool

By Jane Sutton

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A Pentagon legal adviser accused of improperly influencing the Guantanamo war crimes prosecutions dictated which cases would be tried based on how likely they were to pique U.S. public interest, a prosecutor testified on Tuesday.

The prosecutor, Army Lt. Col. William Britt, said in a sworn statement that the government-appointed lawyer, Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, explained his selections this way:

“This case is going to seize the imagination of the American public and that case won’t.”

Britt’s statement came a day after the former chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Moe Davis, testified that the Guantanamo court set up to try foreign terrorism suspects had been tainted by politics and improper influence from senior officials.

Hartmann is a lawyer picked to provide impartial legal advice to the Pentagon appointee overseeing the Guantanamo court, Susan Crawford. He did not attend hearings at the U.S. naval base in Cuba this week and a court spokesman said Hartmann would have no comment.

Davis said Hartmann became the de facto chief prosecutor, rushing through some cases in order to influence U.S. and Australian elections and pushing prosecutors to file “sexy” cases to justify the existence of the widely criticized court.

In his testimony, deputy chief defense attorney Michael Berrigan described Hartmann as a bully who tried to overrule defense decisions and refused defense requests for experts and facilities to help prepare cases.

Berrigan said charges against six Guantanamo prisoners facing possible execution as September 11 plotters were drafted by civilian lawyers who worked for Hartmann, and that Hartmann had draft copies of the charges two weeks before military prosecutors signed them.

The testimony came during pretrial hearings for Yemeni prisoner Salim Hamdan, who acknowledges he was Osama bin Laden’s driver. Hamdan faces life in prison if convicted of conspiring with al Qaeda and providing material support for terrorism.

His lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, asked the judge to dismiss the charges. “Mr. Hamdan cannot be tried in a system where politicians hold the final say over who is charged and what the charges will be,” Mizer said.

The current chief prosecutor, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, portrayed Davis as a bitter man who quit his job because of a personality conflict with Hartmann and then tried to frame the dispute as an ethical conflict.

Morris said Hartmann could be “tactless” and “overbearing,” but could not have influenced the case against Hamdan because those charges were filed before Hartmann took his present job.

The judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, did not indicate when he would rule. Hamdan, whose trial is set for May 28, said he would boycott further sessions because he did not believe he would get a fair trial.

Allred tried to persuade him to stay and participate by reminding Hamdan that he had won a U.S. Supreme Court victory that scrapped the first version of the U.S. war court as illegal in 2006.

“Your name is in our law books,” the judge told Hamdan. “You beat the United States once in our system.”

Hamdan, a small man with a short-cropped beard, laughed during the friendly 40-minute exchange with the judge. Allred assured him there could be further appeals to the Supreme Court if mistakes were made at his trial.

Besides, the judge asked gently, “If you’re not here, where will you be? Back at the camp? Maybe this is a better place than that, just for the change of view.”

It was unclear whether Hamdan would return when the hearing resumed on Wednesday.

Defense lawyers also asked the judge to block Hamdan’s statements to interrogators from being used against him. The 2006 law authorizing the Guantanamo trials says defendants cannot be forced to testify against themselves in court. Defense lawyers said using earlier, coerced statements to interrogators would make a mockery of that protection against self-incrimination.

Among statements the defense wants to suppress is one in which Hamdan said he pledged a loyalty oath to bin Laden and felt “uncontrollable enthusiasm” while serving him.

Hamdan said he took a job driving for bin Laden because he needed money but never joined al Qaeda. Prosecutors say he was a trusted al Qaeda insider who ferried weapons for the group and helped bin Laden escape U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Editing by Philip Barbara

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