Differing Views Of Bin Laden's Driver At Trial

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Salim Hamdan's defense attorneys say he was a lowly driver who took the job as Osama Bin Laden's chauffeur for the money. The U.S. government says he was caught with two rocket-propelled grenades and was an active participant in al-Qaida.


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith. The first trial of an accused terrorist detained at Guantanamo Bay wrapped up its first week. Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, is on trial before a military commission for providing material aid to terrorism and conspiring to commit terrorism. The prosecution and defense have depicted Hamdan in dramatically different ways, as a loyal al-Qaeda warrior on one hand, and a mere salaried mechanic and driver on the other. But both sides have also sharply divergent views on the very legitimacy of the process. NPR's John McChesney reports.

JOHN MCCHESNEY: The jury here listened to a lengthy parade of FBI and other investigators talk about Hamdan as a man trusted by bin Laden, but also a man who cooperated with investigators in a cordial manner. One investigator described departing from Hamdan with an embrace and tears.

At the end of each day, the defense and prosecution appear before the media to answer questions. They won't talk about the evidence, so they talk about the legal standing of what's going on here. Here's chief prosecutor Army Colonel Lawrence Morris.

Army Colonel LAWRENCE MORRIS (Chief Prosecutor, Salim Hamdan Trial): 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 protection for an accused with the legitimate interest of the government, primarily, of course, those being national security.

MCCHESNEY: The defense, on the other hand, sees this as a show trial whose legitimacy will collapse later under appeal. Here's Army Colonel Steven David, the chief defense counsel.

Army Colonel STEVEN DAVID (Chief Defense Counsel, Salim Hamdan Trial): A trial, whether it's at state court, whether it's Indiana, for example, where I'm a trial judge, whether it's the federal system, UCMJ, someone's arrested. They're generally held a very short period of time, and before they're given rights to counsel, or they have access to an attorney. In this system, that is not the case. So that permeates the entire process and taints the entire process.

MCCHESNEY: Hamdan was interviewed by at least 40 agents that the defense knows about. But there are a couple of blank spaces in his detention in Afghanistan during 2001. And in some of that time, he was apparently in CIA custody. The trial judge, Navy Captain Keith Allred, has already excluded some of that evidence, saying it was obtained under coercion. But defense continues to be concerned about the constraints they face getting access to and using classified documents. Here's Deputy Chief Defense Counsel Mike Berrigan describing the difficulty dealing with classified evidence.

Mr. MIKE BERRIGAN (Deputy Chief Defense Counsel, Salim Hamdan Trial): You saw today, I think, the intersection of two worlds. There's the neat orderly world, make it look like a courtroom, have the nice government agents come in to testify, clean, orderly that's presented in court. But there's also a second world. There's a shadowy world, a secret world that you don't get to see.

MCCHESNEY: The defense complained bitterly about a discovery document dump of a thousand pages just before the trial began. Much of it's classified, and they are under tight restrictions about how they can introduce that as evidence. Again, Mike Berrigan.

Mr. BERRIGAN: The defense can't even talk about other governmental agencies that are involved, let alone call employees of those agencies as witnesses, let alone look at the documents. How can you say that's a public trial? How can you say that's a fair trial? It simply isn't. The result is that national and international skepticism about the fairness of these proceedings will just be perpetuated and increased.

MCCHESNEY: Another point of contention about this trial is why the government chose a lowly driver as the first detainee to be tried. Here's chief prosecutor Lawrence Morris.

Army Col. MORRIS: I don't accept the characterization that he's just a driver. In the government case, as you've seen now through several days, is that he's an al-Qaeda warrior who, among other trusted functions, drove the highest-ranking terrorist in the world.

MCCHESNEY: Some agents testified that Hamdan, after attending training camp, said he didn't want to be a fighter, and he never fired a shot during his work with al-Qaeda, nor, apparently, did he formally join al-Qaeda. So the use of the word warrior is questioned by the defense. As to why Hamdan is first, Colonel Morris would only say that they were ready for his case. John McChesney, NPR News, Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

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