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War crimes trial to begin at Gitmo

Salim Hamdan, 38, who has been jailed at Guantanamo for more than six years, could get life in prison on terror charges.

Associated Press

Salim Hamdan, 38, who has been jailed at Guantanamo for more than six years, could get life in prison on terror charges.

MIAMI — Senior U.S. military officers will be mobilized from around the world this weekend to serve as a jury pool at Guantanamo Bay in the Pentagon's first war crimes trial since World War II.

In a victory for the Bush administration in its protracted quest to prosecute terror suspects held at Guantanamo, a federal judge in Washington rejected defense attorneys' appeals Thursday to halt the trial of Osama bin Laden's former driver, Salim Hamdan of Yemen. It will get under way Monday.

Hamdan's lawyers had argued before both U.S. District Judge James Robertson and the military judge hearing pretrial motions at Guantanamo, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, that the trial should be delayed until civilian judges weigh the constitutionality of the tribunal's rules and procedures.

Robertson said that those challenges could be brought during or after the trial and that he would respect "the balance struck by Congress" when it created the war crimes tribunal with the 2006 Military Commissions Act.

Allred rejected defense contentions that Hamdan is entitled to constitutional protections beyond the right of habeas corpus upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 12.

Hamdan will be the first of 265 Guantanamo prisoners to be tried on terrorism charges, and his appearance before Allred and a panel of at least seven senior officers will allow the Bush administration to demonstrate whether the tribunal it created nearly seven years ago can produce convictions.

Robertson's refusal to postpone the start of the trial also allows the Republican administration to put some terrorism suspects on trial before the presidential election. Trials of Canadian prisoner Omar Khadr and five men facing death penalty charges for alleged involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are also expected to begin before early November.

If Hamdan were to be convicted and sentenced and the Sept. 11 defendants, including confessed mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, are tried this fall, it could be more difficult for the next administration to dismantle a judicial system that keeps the reputed terrorists off U.S. soil.

Both presumptive presidential nominees, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, have said they want to close Guantanamo.

This week, Khadr's lawyers released video excerpts from a 2003 interrogation of the 16-year-old in which he wept and begged for help. In the video that Pentagon officials fought to keep out of the public eye, Khadr also tells his Canadian interrogator that he was mistreated in U.S. custody and removes his shirt to show wounds he said hadn't healed.

Khadr's trial is set for October, but his military defense lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. William C. Kuebler, has been pressing for his now 21-year-old client to be released or transferred to Canada where he could be tried in a legal system that respects international covenants on the treatment of child soldiers.

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Former Attorney General John Ashcroft disavowed the now-defunct legal reasoning used to justify harshly questioning terrorism suspects in House Judiciary Committee testimony Thursday, but dug in his heels to defend White House officials who pressured him while he was hospitalized four years ago to approve terror surveillance programs.

War crimes trial to begin at Gitmo 07/17/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 4:19pm]
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