GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The Guantanamo war crimes court conducted its first secret session on Thursday to hear defense testimony from a U.S. Army psychiatrist who helped train mental health officials involved in prisoner interrogations.
Yemeni defendant Salim Hamdan, who was Osama bin Laden’s driver in Afghanistan, was allowed to hear testimony from Army Col. Morgan Banks, a clinical psychologist at Fort Bragg. But journalists and human rights observers were banished from the courtroom at the remote U.S. naval base in southeast Cuba.
According to newspaper reports, Banks oversees psychologists involved in the Army’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program that trains U.S. soldiers to resist harsh interrogation if captured.
It involves sensory and sleep deprivation, nakedness and sexual humiliation, loud noises, use of dogs, extreme temperatures and “stress positions” and was adapted and sanctioned by the Pentagon for use in detainee interrogations, according to U.S. congressional testimony in June.
Banks was at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan when Hamdan was taken there in December 2001, a defense lawyer said.
Banks later briefed Guantanamo-bound mental health officials on the “exploitation, oversight and treatment of detainees and staff in a captivity environment,” according to congressional testimony from a former Guantanamo official.
He was one of two defense witnesses on Thursday whose testimony was closed to the press. Defense lawyers objected to closing the courtroom for their testimony.
“It is my hope that the American public will someday hear Mr. Hamdan’s defense,” said his lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer.
The closed session came after military prosecutors finished presenting their evidence against Hamdan in the first trial at the Guantanamo war crimes court and after the judge issued a ruling that was largely blacked out.
The jury of six U.S. military officers could begin deliberating their verdict within a week. Hamdan faces life in prison if convicted on charges of conspiring with al Qaeda and providing material support for terrorism.
Over nine days, 14 prosecution witnesses testified against Hamdan, including 10 federal agents who questioned him without telling him his words would be used against him in a criminal trial.
Hamdan acknowledges bin Laden hired him as a driver in Afghanistan, but denies joining al Qaeda or having advance knowledge of its attacks.
The government’s final witness was Robert McFadden, an agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, who interviewed Hamdan at Guantanamo in May 2003.
“He said he pledged bayat to Osama bin Laden,” McFadden said of Hamdan, using an Arabic term for loyalty oath.
McFadden said Hamdan supported bin Laden’s exhortation to kill Americans and drive Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula, but reserved the right to withdraw the oath if it involved violence against fellow Muslims.
Defense lawyers fought to exclude the testimony and said Hamdan’s statements were tainted by coercion, sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation at Guantanamo.
The judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, issued a five-page ruling explaining his decision to allow the testimony. Journalists received a copy with three entire pages and half of the other two blacked out.
Allred wrote that “being detained in Guantanamo Bay is undoubtedly an unpleasant, highly regimented experience,” but that there was clear evidence Hamdan’s statements to McFadden were not coerced. He said the evidence showed those statements were “by all accounts the most friendly, least threatening and most cordial of all the statements he made.”
Hamdan, who was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001, had previously been questioned by about 40 agents from U.S. government organizations. One interrogation lasted more than 13 days, defense lawyers said.
Hamdan is the first captive tried in the special tribunals created by the Bush administration to prosecute non-U.S. citizens on terrorism charges outside regular civilian and military courts.
The U.S. government charges Hamdan also acted as bin Laden’s armed bodyguard and had two surface-to-air missiles, without firing pins, in his car when captured.
Editing by Jim Loney and Peter Cooney