Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 12:23 pm (KSA) 09:23 am (GMT)

Prosecutors wrap up first Guantanamo trial

Defendant Salim Hamdan watches as FBI agent Craig Donnachie testifies at trial
Defendant Salim Hamdan watches as FBI agent Craig Donnachie testifies at trial

U.S. military prosectors finished presenting evidence against Osama bin Laden's driver on Thursday in the first trial at the war crimes court at the Guantanamo Bay naval base.

The final government witness against defendant Salim Hamdan was a U.S. naval investigator who testified that the Yemeni prisoner admitted swearing an oath of allegiance to bin Laden.

Defense attorneys, who fought unsuccessfully to keep out that testimony, will now begin presenting their case and 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.

He acknowledges bin Laden hired him as a driver in Afghanistan, but denies joining al-Qaeda or having advance knowledge of its attacks.

Prosecution's strategy

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.

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, allowed the testimony. Journalists attending the trial at the remote U.S. naval base in southeast Cuba received a copy of his five-page ruling, with three entire pages and half of the other two blacked out.

Question of coercion

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 various 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 the 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.

McFadden revealed that Hamdan had a permit from the Taliban government authorizing him to carry weapons, and jurors were shown a copy.

It was unclear whether his government-issued weapons permit would have any impact on U.S. prosecutors' contention that carrying the missiles in Afghanistan was a war crime. They said the missiles must have been intended for use against U.S. aircraft, since they were the only planes in the area.

The defense planned to call two U.S. special forces soldiers as witnesses on Thursday. They were at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan when Hamdan was taken there in December 2001, but the subject of their testimony was declared secret and court officials said the courtroom probably would be closed to the press at least part of the time.

"Any claim that the defense is requesting these closed sessions is patently false," said Hamdan's military lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer. "It is my hope that the American public will someday hear Mr. Hamdan's defense."

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