A US court on Tuesday threw out the conviction of Osama bin Laden’s former driver over material support to terrorism, in a case that could potentially benefit other past prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
A top US court for the second time ruled in favor of claims by Salim Hamdan, who served as bin Laden’s personal chauffeur and has fought to clear his name even after being released.
The US Court of Appeals in Washington said that a law that listed material support for terrorism as a war crime — approved in 2006 in response to Hamdan’s case — could not apply to him retroactively.
US prosecutors instead had to rely on international law, which defines some forms of terrorism — such as the intentional targeting of civilians — as war crimes, the court said.
“But the issue here is whether ‘material support for terrorism’ is an international-law war crime. The answer is no,” Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the court.
Kavanaugh — who was appointed by former US president George W. Bush and is generally considered a conservative — also dismissed the argument that the case was moot as Hamdan had already been released.
All seven men who have been convicted by Guantanamo’s military commission faced charges that included material support for terrorism.
The American Civil Liberties Union renewed its call for the government to prosecute Guantanamo prisoners in civilian court if it has sufficient, legally obtained evidence.
“This decision strikes the biggest blow yet against the legitimacy of the Guantanamo military commissions, which have for years now been trying people for a supposed war crime that in fact is not a war crime at all,” said Zachary Katznelson, senior staff attorney for the group.
According to prosecutors, Hamdan moved from Yemen to Afghanistan in 1996 and participated in a training camp of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.
Hamdan became a driver who transported weapons and other goods between al-Qaeda sites in Afghanistan and later became bin Laden’s personal driver and bodyguard, according to US court documents.
Hamdan was captured in November 2001 in possession of two anti-aircraft missiles as he was driving toward the Taliban’s hub of Kandahar, prosecutors said.
The former driver steadfastly denied participation in attacks and expressed grief for the deaths of innocent people.
His case went to the US Supreme Court, which in a 2006 decision — Hamdan vs Rumsfeld, named after then-US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld — said that the procedures in place to try Hamdan violated the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of wartime prisoners.
In response to the case, US Congress in 2006 approved the Military Commissions Act, signed by Bush, that aimed to establish procedures more clearly. Hamdan was convicted and sentenced in August 2008 to 66 months, but transferred soon afterward to Yemen due to time already served.
However, separate cases on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US underway at Guantanamo revolve around more serious charges.
Three defendants took a judge up on his offer to let them skip their military tribunal on Tuesday and the proceedings went on without them. The Guantanamo detainees won a new request to return to court in camouflage clothing if they wanted.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the 2001 attacks, was not in the courtroom while attorneys delved into a dense debate on legal motions, including rules for handling classified evidence at trial and what kind of clothing would be allowed.
Only two of the five defendants made it to court for the second day of the week-long hearing. Mohammed, Saudi defendant Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi and Pakistani national Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali — Mohammed’s nephew — all stayed away.
Presiding judge Army Colonel James Pohl ruled on Monday that the defendants did not have to attend the hearing every day this week, although he said they would have to attend their formal trial and may need to attend future hearings.