A military prosecutor at Guantanamo says Osama bin Laden's driver, Salim Hamdan, knew the target of the fourth jetliner terrorists hijacked on September 11, 2001. VOA's Cindy Saine reports Hamdan is the first Guantanamo detainee to actually go on trial, and his defense attorneys and human rights groups are questioning the legality of the U.S. military commission system.
The first Guantanamo trial is trying to determine whether Salim Hamdan was just a low-ranked driver and mechanic, as his lawyers claim, or someone who had inside knowledge of al-Qaida plans, as U.S. military prosecutors claim.
Prosecutors said Wednesday that Hamdan was one of very few people who knew that the jet that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania was intended for the U.S. Capitol, because he overheard a conversation between bin Laden and his deputy. Two other jets crashed into the World Trade Center, and one into the Pentagon.
Hamdan, a Yemeni father of two who is now in his thirties, is charged with conspiracy and aiding terrorism. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The trial is drawing new scrutiny to Guantanamo, which has been the focal point of international criticism of U.S. detention and interrogation policies since it began housing prisoners in 2002.
The tribunal's chief prosecutor, Colonel Lawrence Morris, defended the trial at a briefing at the U.S. naval base in Cuba Tuesday.
"In my opinion, they're seeing the most just war crimes trial that anybody has ever seen - with more due process, more protection for an accused person and a more sophisticated balancing of protections for an accused with the legitimate interests of the government, primarily of course those being national security," said Colonel Morris.
The approximately 270 remaining detainees at Guantanamo have been held for years without being charged. The Bush administration has declared them unlawful enemy combatants, not entitled to the rights afforded prisoners of war.
At Tuesday's Guantanamo briefing, Hamdan's defense team - including U.S. military officers, questioned the legality of the military tribunal system. Chief Defense Council Colonel Steven David said the U.S. has one of the most respected federal court systems and military justice systems in the world, and there was no need to create the Guantanamo commissions.
"We are the model for other countries and yet we invent a commission system to try these detainees based on the premise that they are not subject to the US constitution," said Colonel David. "I think that has been proven incorrect, or they are housed in Guantanamo Bay and not subject to US jurisdiction."
The Hamdan trial began despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month that detainees at Guantanamo have the right to challenge their detention through U.S. civilian courts. A lower court ruled last week that military trials can continue while civilian courts establish a process and rule on any challenges, a ruling that angered human rights groups.
The Washington Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, Tom Malinowski, agrees that the Bush administration should never have created a separate legal system for terrorist suspects in the first place, and says the trials must be moved into U.S. federal courts.
"It goes back seven years to the way in which the White House set up the military commissions, trials, without including some of the most basic rules that American justice provides in most circumstances," said Tom Malinowski. "The commissions have been improved over those seven years, but they still don't live up to American standards of justice or international standards of justice. People have lost so much faith in the system that it is really too late to fix it."
The Bush administration plans to prosecute about 80 prisoners at Guantanamo, but Malinowski says he believes the controversial prison will soon be shut down for good.
"Guantanamo's days are numbered," he said. "The next president of the United States will close Guantanamo. Both Senator [John] McCain and Senator [Barack] Obama have made that absolutely clear. And I think what we are seeing is, you know, the final episode in this long and sad drama.
Salim Hamdan's trial is expected to take three to four weeks. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if found guilty. Even if he is found not guilty, the Bush administration reserves the right to hold enemy combatants until the current armed conflict, the war on terror, is over.