Sat, Jul 19, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Bin Laden driver’s trial set to begin

SETTING A PRECEDENT Despite the judge’s concerns as to what rights prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have, he allowed the first trial in the military system to go ahead

AP , WASHINGTON

The US can begin trying Osama bin Laden’s former driver next week at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, a federal judge ruled on Thursday, rejecting the defendant’s plea to halt the historic first trial in the military system set up following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

In a victory for the administration of US President George W. Bush, US District Judge James Robertson ruled that civilian courts should let the military process play out as Congress intended — a decision that could clear the way for military commissions to begin prosecuting other terrorism suspects, including those charged directly in the 2001 attacks.

Had the trial been delayed, as requested by former bin Laden chauffeur Salim Hamdan, it would have been a sign that the entire terror-trial process might crumble under the weight of judicial scrutiny.

Hamdan argued that he should be given a chance to challenge the legality of the military trials, based on last month’s Supreme Court ruling that said Guantanamo Bay prisoners can oppose their detentions in federal civilian courts. If judges hold that to be the case, every detainee at the US naval base in Cuba could use court challenges to delay his trial for months or years.

But Robertson refused to step in to stop the Hamdan trial, which is scheduled for Monday.

“Courts should respect the balance that Congress has struck,” he said. “Hamdan is to face a military commission designed by Congress acting on guidelines handed down by the Supreme Court.”

At Guantanamo Bay, military prosecutors said the ruling gave them more confidence that the trials would go forward against 80 detainees, including alleged Sept. 11, 2001, mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others charged in the attacks.

Army Colonel Lawrence Morris, the chief prosecutor, predicted the trials would soon become routine.

“It will start looking like the space shuttle,” Morris said. “At some point you look and somebody asks, ‘Is there a space shuttle orbiting or not,’ and you don’t know anymore because it’s no longer an extraordinary event.”

Hamdan’s Pentagon-appointed attorney, Navy Lieutenant Commander. Brian Mizer, said he intends to prove the Yemeni defendant was merely a driver and a mechanic for bin Laden — not an al-Qaeda terrorist — but he doubts a fair trial is possible.

“This trial is going to proceed, but it’s not going to be full, open and fair,” Mizer said. “There are fundamental flaws in the system.”

Defense attorneys said they informed Hamdan of Robertson’s ruling but he had no reaction.

There is no guarantee the ruling means all the military commission trials will go forward. But judges in Washington’s federal courthouse, where hundreds of detainee lawsuits are pending, had said they were waiting to see how Robertson handled this first case.

Robertson, who was appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton, seemed concerned at one point that government attorneys were unable to give him a clear answer about what constitutional rights prisoners have at Guantanamo Bay.

But he said he was obligated to let the process continue. He said Hamdan could raise any procedural challenges during trial and, if convicted, he can ask military and civilian appeals courts to settle constitutional questions. The ruling came shortly after a military judge at Guantanamo Bay also denied Hamdan’s request for a postponement.

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