The first Guantanamo Bay war crimes trial, involving Osama bin Laden's former driver, can start next week, a federal judge ruled on Thursday, saying the system backed by President George W. Bush and Congress can stand.
U.S. District Judge James Robertson rejected a request from attorneys for Salim Hamdan, who was the driver for al-Qaeda leader bin Laden in Afghanistan, to stop his trial while he challenges the military tribunal system.
Robertson read his ruling from the bench after hearing more than two hours of arguments from Hamdan's lawyers and the U.S. Justice Department over whether the trial should be delayed.
It is scheduled to start on July 21.
Hamdan, a Yemeni, would be the first prisoner tried in the U.S. war crimes court at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba.
There are about 265 detainees at Guantanamo, which was set up in January 2002 to hold terrorism suspects captured after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Most of those at the base have been held for years without being charged and many have complained of abuse.
Hamdan's attorneys said a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month made clear the detainees are entitled to fundamental constitutional rights.
"Guantanamo once was a Constitution-free zone. It no longer is," Georgetown University law professor Neal Katyal, one of the lawyers for Hamdan, said in arguing that the proceeding should be put on hold.
But the judge sided with the arguments by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John O'Quinn, who said a 2006 law backed by Bush allows such challenges only after a trial takes place.
War crimes tribunal
The Guantanamo tribunals are the first U.S. war crimes tribunals since World War Two.
They were established to try non-American captives whom the Bush administration considers "enemy combatants" not entitled to the legal protections granted to soldiers and civilians.
Human rights groups have criticized the Guantanamo prison and trial system as inherently unfair.
Army Col. Lawrence Morris, chief prosecutor of the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals, said he was pleased with the ruling and that it could mean more prisoners would be charged more quickly.
"We had planned to continue forward in any event. Obviously it gives us more confidence to do so. We expect to charge more individuals over the next couple of months and we're in the process of moving the other referred cases through the process," Morris told reporters at the base.
Robertson noted that the law authorizing the tribunals allows a prisoner to go to the U.S. Court of Appeals after his trial at the base. He also cited a recent ruling by the appeals court that another Guantanamo prisoner cannot bring an appeal until after his military tribunal trial has taken place.
Before he made the ruling, the judge said he was issuing it now, with a written opinion expected on Friday, in case the losing side wanted to appeal.
Spokesman Erik Ablin said the Justice Department was pleased with the decision, and that the government looks forward to presenting its case against Hamdan.