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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today, a federal appeals court overturned the conviction of Osama bin Laden's former driver. His name is Salim Hamdan and this is not the first case with his name in the title. In 2006, in Hamdan versus Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court ruled that the Bush administration's military commission system at Guantanamo was unconstitutional. Hamdan was released from Guantanamo several years ago, but today's ruling could affect detainees who are still there.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is here to explain this. And, Dina, first of all, tell us more about what the court ruled today.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, at the most basic level a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C., said Hamdan was wrongly convicted. He was found guilty of providing material support to a terrorist organization by the military commissions at Guantanamo. Material support is a charge that just means you helped a terrorist organization in some way.

Hamdan was Osama bin Laden's driver from about 1996 to 2001. And prosecutors said, and a military jury agreed, that amounted to supporting a terrorist organization.

What the court decided today was that Hamdan couldn't be charged with material support because he was bin Laden's driver. When he was bin Laden's driver, material support wasn't a recognized crime under the Military Commissions Act; that didn't happen until 2006.

SIEGEL: And what changed in 2006?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the rules governing military commissions changed. And that was because of Hamdan, too. Remember the military commissions are those special courts for suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo. And Hamdan, as you had said, had appealed his detention at Guantanamo all the way to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court ruled that the commissions, as they were set up at that time, are unconstitutional.

So that's why Congress in 2006 had to rewrite these laws governing the commissions. And one of the things they did is add this material support as a crime. Today, the appeals court basically said if a detainee committed material support before Congress rewrote that law, they can't be charged with it in a military commission.

SIEGEL: Well, let's say now this would affect people who are in Guantanamo. Would it reverse convictions for others who had already been tried and convicted at Guantanamo?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Hamdan is one of the few cases in which the only convicted charged material support. And, as you said, he was sent back to Yemen several years ago, so that doesn't really affect him much. Where it could have a really big impact is on cases that are in the pipeline. It could affect detainees at Guantanamo accused of being part of Al-Qaida before 2006, but of not plotting any specific terrorist act.

The prosecutors might have tried to charge them with material support and now they can't.

SIEGEL: Now they can't. How many people would this affect, do we know?

Well, that's the thing. It's unclear. There are 166 detainees still at Guantanamo and the number of those who are awaiting a trial is probably somewhere between 16 and 60. And we don't know what kind of evidence prosecutors have on them. But there was the sense that a good number of them were just, you know, foot soldiers and more likely to be charged with material support. Now prosecutors will have to charge them either with something else or hold them indefinitely.

So does that make today's ruling a big setback for the military commission system?

TEMPLE-RASTON: When it comes to the big marquee cases that people are really watching, probably not. The 9/11 trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and the four other men accused of plotting the attacks on the Twin Towers and - they're still in pretrial motions. In fact, those are going on this week. And clearly, they're being charged with more than just material support.

But it's those lower-level detainees, it's possible the only way to try them was with this lesser charge. And now that really isn't available to prosecutors. It could make a great argument for moving these lower-level detainees into U.S. federal court. Material support is a perfectly legal charge there. But Congress has made moving detainees to the U.S. for trial difficult, if not impossible. So it's unclear whether this ruling might have sort of an ancillary effect on that.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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