First Guantanamo War Crimes Trial Begins

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The first Guantanamo war crimes trial has begun. Salim Hamdan — Osama bin Laden's former driver — is accused of helping al-Qaida. Hamdan has denied the charge. Carol Rosenberg, the Miami Herald's reporter in Guantanamo Bay, talks with Steve Inskeep about the trial.

Tribunal Begins For Bin Laden's Former Driver

Hamdan sketch i

Salim Ahmed Hamdan is seated with his legal team inside the courtroom at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a U.S. military tribunal arraignment on June 4, 2007. Janet Hamlin/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Janet Hamlin/AFP/Getty Images
Hamdan sketch

Salim Ahmed Hamdan is seated with his legal team inside the courtroom at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a U.S. military tribunal arraignment on June 4, 2007.

Janet Hamlin/AFP/Getty Images
Salim Ahmed Hamdan i

Salim Ahmed Hamdan AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images
Salim Ahmed Hamdan

Salim Ahmed Hamdan

AFP/Getty Images

Salim Ahmed Hamdan has pleaded not guilty at his terrorism trial in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Hamdan, a former driver for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, is facing a U.S. military tribunal on charges of conspiracy and supporting terrorism.

Specifically, military prosecutors say that when Hamdan was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001, he was on his way to a battlefront with two surface-to-air missiles in his car. Prosecutors say the Yemeni citizen was part of bin Laden's inner circle, and as such, was party to the planning for al-Qaida attacks, including the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Hamdan's defense lawyers say Hamdan was a low-level driver and mechanic who worked for bin Laden because he needed the monthly paycheck. They say that he was not part of any conspiracy against the United States.

Hamdan, who is in his late 30s, has been a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay since 2002. His case has been at the center of the Bush administration's effort to classify certain foreign fighters as enemy combatants, rather than prisoners of war, and try them before military courts.

Hamdan's lawyers successfully argued in 2006 that President Bush had exceeded his authority in establishing military commissions to try the terrorism cases. The Supreme Court also ruled that the president's military commissions violated U.S. military law and the Geneva Conventions protecting prisoners of war.

Later that year, Congress passed a new law, the Military Commissions Act, which sought to address the problems of the earlier tribunals. The new law said that military courts hearing enemy combatant cases could hear evidence that was obtained by coercive interrogations, and that defendants in such trials could not invoke the Geneva Conventions as a source of rights.

In June of this year, the Supreme Court declared part of the Military Commissions Act to be unconstitutional. The ruling gave Guantanamo prisoners the right to take their cases before U.S. federal courts and challenge the validity of their detentions.

For now, Hamdan's case is being heard by a jury of uniformed military officers chosen by the Pentagon. Prosecutors say they expect to present nearly two dozen witnesses in the course of a trial that's expected to take at least three weeks.

Even if the military panel acquits him, Hamdan will not necessarily be released. The Bush administration has said that he could be held until the United States declares an official end to the so-called "war on terror."

Military officials say Hamdan is the first of about 80 Guantanamo prisoners who are expected to be prosecuted before military tribunals.

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