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November 08, 2004

Nov. 8, 2004: A New Week at Guantanamo

Nov. 8: Facing Mr. Hamdan

Today is the first day in which the military commission panel will hear motions in the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan. Mr. Hamdan is charged with conspiracy to attack civilians and commit other acts of terrorism.

Some of the issues in the case that may get decided over the next few weeks are whether the commission has authority to try Hamdan; whether the offense he is charged with exists under the law of war; and whether the military proceedings should be put on hold while Hamdan challenges the legitimacy of the military commissions in a separate case now underway in civilian federal court back on the U.S. mainland. All told there are about 30 motions the commission panel has to decide. As Ken Hurwitz, our observer last week, pointed out in his discussions of David Hicks’ trial, a lot of the same issues are being raised in both of these cases.

Having pored through the many motions, I am eager to finally see Mr. Hamdan and put a face to what often seem abstract legal arguments that in the end have great ramifications for one man’s freedom and may say a lot as well about the President’s commander-in-chief powers. The portrait of Mr. Hamdan we have so far – one gleaned from motions filed by both sides, as well as his own sworn statement – is of course conflicting at best.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan is a Yemeni citizen, either 34 or 35 years old, with two children, who worked as Osama bin Laden’s personal driver from 1996 to October 2001. He claims that he was not a member of Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and did not support any terrorist actions. He was an orphan by age 12 who spent some of his teenage years homeless and without any supervision.

Hamdan states that when he was 20 years old he was recruited to help in Muslim efforts against communists in Tajikistan. The prosecution alleges, based on a FBI report, that theses efforts constituted jihad.

Unable to reach Tajikistan, Hamdan says that he needed work and thought of returning to Yemen, but a man told him of a job prospect as a driver. It was then that he met bin Laden and agreed to work for him a driver on a farm in Afghanistan. After about seven or eight months, he became bin Laden’s personal driver.

The prosecution alleges that Hamdan served as both bin Laden’s driver and bodyguard, and knew of bin Laden’s intention to “expel the infidels from the Arabian peninsula.” The prosecution also alleges that it was at this early stage of employment that Hamdan “pledged ‘conditional bayat’ to bin Laden agreeing to provide full support of the ‘jihad against the Crusaders and Jews.’” According to the prosecution, Hamdan transported weapons from the Taliban to Al Qaeda, and he trained at the al Farouq terrorist training camp in various weapons.

Between 1998 and October 2001, Hamdan returned to Yemen to get married and to make pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. He returned to Afghanistan with his wife and continued work as a driver. In October 2001, hearing that the Northern Alliance was attacking Kandahar where his wife and daughter lived, he left bin Laden and brought his family to Pakistan. Trying to return home to Afghanistan to put things in order he was captured by Afghan soldiers who, he says, sold him to the Americans for $5,000.

Again the prosecution tells a different version of events, describing Hamdan as having had close contact with Mullah Bilal, who was involved in the USS Cole attack. The prosecution also alleges that Hamdan was present after September 11 when bin Laden met with Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and discussed the terrorist attacks.

While in detention in Afghanistan, Hamdan says he was repeatedly beaten, placed in stress positions, and threatened with death and torture.

The U.S. military brought Hamdan to Guantanamo Bay in June 2002. He was initially placed in a cellblock, where he interacted with other detainees. He was given a couple of opportunities to talk with his wife on the phone. He was encouraged to testify against others and to sign certain agreements in exchange for which he could become a U.S. citizen.

Then in December 2003, he was moved to Camp Delta and placed in solitary confinement. Since that time he has had no contact with people, except for his guard and the limited meetings with his lawyer. His psychological condition has seriously deteriorated raising concerns whether he will be able to provide any assistance to his lawyers. Finally, Mr. Hamdan has gone on a hunger strike and lost 50 pounds while in detention, all the while receiving inadequate medical assistance.

This week is not a likely opportunity to get to know much more about Mr. Hamdan and test the different versions of the defense and the prosecution. The motions deal most significantly with a number of attempts by the defense to dismiss the charges against Hamdan based on the legitimacy of the military commissions themselves. If last week in the Hicks case is any indication, the commission is likely to defer these decisions as they are of such great consequence and take some time before issuing decisions.