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bin Laden's former driver goes on trial

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — After a Supreme Court victory and four years of war court hearings, much is known about Osama bin Laden's former driver, who goes on trial today.

Salim Hamdan, now 37, earned $200 a month driving bin Laden around Afghanistan until his November 2001 capture. He has a fourth-grade education and a wife and two daughters, now living in his native Yemen. In court, he mostly wears a traditional gown topped by a suit jacket, white head scarf and bewildered expression.

His team of U.S. lawyers challenged President Bush's first effort to try him by military commission before the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2006 found the first war court unconstitutional.

Yet there is much more to learn about Hamdan.

Is Hamdan a war criminal?

He is charged with providing material support for terrorism as bin Laden's driver. Prosecutors allege that he also was a bodyguard and weapons courier for the al-Qaida founder, making him part of a broad global conspiracy that culminated with the Sept. 11 attacks. His lawyers seek to prove he was nobody. "The evidence will show he was a salaried employee of Mr. bin Laden, not a member of al-Qaida," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, his Pentagon-appointed defense counsel.

Who gets to decide?

The Pentagon is withholding identities of the 13-member jury pool. All are U.S. military officers and college educated. At least five jurors will be seated. A two-thirds majority is needed for conviction.

What happened to Hamdan for a month after his capture in southern Afghanistan?

He was captured in late November 2001 in Taktapol. Defense lawyers have made much of a gap — nearly all of December 2001 — in his U.S. capture records, in a bid to exclude his interrogations from trial.

What were his ties to al-Qaida's inner circle?

The alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, said that, as U.S. forces were closing in on Kandahar, he instructed Hamdan to drive some women and children from danger. Mohammed is on the defense's witness list.

Did he help U.S. forces?

FBI agents have described Hamdan as a snitch. He allegedly led U.S. forces in Afghanistan on a tour of former al-Qaida strongholds.

Will we get to see his first interrogation?

Among trial evidence withheld from public view is a video of Hamdan being questioned soon after his capture. Those who have seen it describe Hamdan as sporting a huge black beard and Afghan-style attire and lying to his interrogator. U.S. officials have refused to release the video.

Will Hamdan appear in court?

He has threatened a boycott. Hamdan's lawyers want him at the defense table, and so do prosecutors. The judge has not said whether he would compel him.

What penalty does he face?

He faces a maximum of life in prison if convicted. Even if he is acquitted, he probably will not be released because of his "enemy combatant" designation.

>>fast facts

Salim Hamdan

Salim Hamdan was born in 1969 or 1970 in Khoreiba, Yemen. According to his own affidavit, Hamdan was hired by Osama bin Laden as a personal driver in Afghanistan between 1996 and November 2001.

Hamdan arrived at Guantanamo in mid 2002, after Camp X-Ray had been closed and captives were held at Camp Delta overlooking the Caribbean. His first trial was stopped by a federal judge in Washington on Nov. 8, 2004.

bin Laden's former driver goes on trial 07/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 21, 2008 5:09pm]
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