Jury Sees Video Of Al-Qaida Suspect's Interrogation

The first Guantanamo Bay war crimes trial has started. A military jury viewed a video of the defendant Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's former driver, kneeling before a masked U.S. soldier, denying that he worked for al-Qaida. The videotape was recorded in Afghanistan shortly after Hamdan's capture in November 2001.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

In Guantanamo, the first major terrorism trial is finally underway, but it's not the trial of a major figure. The military court is considering the case of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's driver. In a dramatic highlight, the six-member military jury has been shown a video. Hamdan, handcuffed and hooded, is kneeling before a masked U.S. soldier.

The two-hour videotape was recorded in Afghanistan shortly after his capture in November 2001. In that first interrogation, Hamdan denied he worked for al-Qaida. NPR's John McChesney is covering the Hamdan trial and he joins me now. Good morning.

JOHN MCCHESNEY: Good morning, Deborah.

AMOS: Describe a bit that videotape and Hamdan's reaction.

MCCHESNEY: Well, there are really two interrogation videos. They were both 45 minutes long. He's sitting in a dark room and in one of them a flashlight plays across his face and his legs. He's cross-legged and one kneeling and he's obviously in some discomfort and keeps asking permission to change position.

As you said, he denied working for al-Qaida. He said he worked for a relief organization. He was questioned repeatedly about letters from his wife and daughter. He had taken them to Pakistan for safety and he clearly was trying to protect them.

He insists in that video that he borrowed the car and the missiles and the paper found in it were not his. But he didn't know how to operate them in any case, he says. He says at one point I'm finished. Why should I lie? Then in the courtroom about four minutes into the video, who cuts quite a figure with his white headscarf and black coat, he walked out and said I can't, I'm sorry. And later he returned and apologized and said he would explain himself to the jury this morning.

AMOS: What other evidence has been presented against Hamdan since the trial began?

MCCHESNEY: Well, the principal evidence against him has been presented by a former FBI terrorism expert named Ali Sufan(ph). And Sufan testified that he had developed a pretty trusting relationship with Hamdan at Guantanamo and that Hamdan had told him a lot. Sufan analyzed a lot of pictures and videos that showed Hamdan standing near Bin Laden with a weapon and a radio.

And he said, you know, that meant that Hamdan was part of the inner circle; no one would be trusted to get that close to Bin Laden with a weapon and a radio. He also said Bin Laden arranged Hamdan's marriage; that Hamdan helped him escape after 9/11 and that he knew about the bombing of the USS Cole and those embassy bombings in Africa, but he stayed with the organization anyway.

AMOS: Tell us what the possible outcomes of this trial could be?

MCCHESNEY: Well, the outcome could be for Hamdan a life sentence, although it's not clear even if he's acquitted that he'll be released given the situation down here at Guantanamo. He could get six months, but he might still be detained past that. The proceeding is supposed to run two or three weeks. This is really a test run for these controversial commissions.

The defense team here has with some passion said they're really doing this sort of under protest. They say their client was interrogated for years without counsel, that they just got dumped 600 pages of discovery two days ago. They've taken this to the Supreme Court and they've won significant victories in the past, and they're going to appeal this, whatever happens. So these proceedings could be litigated for years to come.

AMOS: We've been talking to NPR's John McChesney about the trial of Salim Hamdan before a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Thank you.

MCCHESNEY: Thank you, Deborah.

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