Trial Of Bin Laden's Driver To Begin In Guantanamo

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The first war-crimes trial at Guantanamo Bay starts tomorrow with Osama bin Laden's former driver, Salim Hamdan, the defendant. Hamdan has been in U.S. custody for seven years. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Miami Herald reporter Carl Rosenberg.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. The first war crimes tribunal at Guantanamo Bay begins tomorrow when Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's driver, goes on trial. Hamdan, who was captured in November 2001, has been charged with the crimes of conspiring with al-Qaeda and providing material support for terrorism. Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald will be covering the trial and she joins us by phone from Guantanamo. Welcome to the program.

Ms. CAROL ROSENBERG (Reporter, Miami Herald): Well, thanks for calling me.

HANSEN: We know Hamdan was bin Laden's driver, but what else is known about him?

Ms. ROSENBERG: The Pentagon says he was his bodyguard, part of his security detail, that he ran weapons around Afghanistan from the years perhaps 1996 to his capture in 2001, and they describe him as a cog in the infrastructure of al-Qaeda key insider.

HANSEN: His fate is in the hands of a military jury but the identities of the jury members remains secret. Do you know anything about who will make up the jury?

Ms. ROSENBERG: Yeah, they brought in 13 U.S. military officers over the weekend. That means they're all college educated. They'll be maybe Marines or sailors or soldiers from the army or they could be in the Air Force. Twelve came from bases in the United States and one came from overseas.

HANSEN: Will Hamdan himself be present?

Ms. ROSENBERG: You know, he's threatened to boycott but his lawyers, his American lawyers, say that they want him there and that they expect him to participate in the trial.

HANSEN: What will happen if he is convicted?

Ms. ROSENBERG: He's facing life. The punishment for these crimes is a maximum of life. The jurors get to decide the punishment. He has been in U.S. custody for seven years. His defense lawyers will argue that the custody has been punitive, that he's been subjected to sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and that enough is enough. They've already said that whatever the outcome of the trial, they want the judge to find that his conditions of confinement down here in Guantanamo were punitive.

HANSEN: Given this is the first trial, any idea what this means for the bigger picture?

Ms. ROSENBERG: You know, it sounds like a cliche but it's a test drive. They're going to take this thing out and they're going to see how military commissions work. This is a new law that was passed in 2006. What the Pentagon says is a straightforward case to get a straightforward trial going. Now the defense attorney, you should know, says the guy was nobody, he was just a driver. This was at best a foot soldier or someone who was doing a job for 200 bucks a month.

HANSEN: Carol Rosenberg is a reporter with the Miami Herald. Thanks a lot.

Ms. ROSENBERG: Thank you.

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