GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Salim Hamdan is a small player with a big role.
A former driver for Osama bin Laden, he is about to become the first Guantanamo prisoner to be tried for war crimes in a major test of the U.S. system for prosecuting alleged terrorists.
Hamdan is an unlikely candidate for the history books — a wiry Yemeni father of two with a fourth-grade education who is not accused of a direct role in any terrorist attacks.
He is scheduled to go on trial Monday on charges of conspiracy and supporting terrorism before a jury of military officers in a specially built courtroom at a former air strip at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
A judge in Washington refused Thursday to order a halt to the proceedings. That means Hamdan, who earned about $200 a month as bin Laden's driver, will be the first defendant in a U.S. military war crimes trial since World War II. His case will be watched around the world, the subject of inevitable debate and future legal challenges.
His Pentagon-appointed lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, will argue that the United States has zeroed in on too small a target in Hamdan.
"He is a driver and a mechanic, not a member of al-Qaida," Mizer said Thursday.
So far the United States has charged 20 Guantanamo prisoners, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. One Guantanamo detainee, David Hicks, accepted a plea bargain in 2007, served nine months and is now free in his native Australia.
Relatively minor figure
Military prosecutors agree Hamdan is a relatively minor figure, but they say that as a driver he helped carry weapons that were used on the battlefields of Afghanistan and helped bin Laden evade retribution after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It's a serious case," said the chief prosecutor, Army Col. Lawrence Morris.
Hamdan, now in his late 30s, left Yemen in 1996 to become an Islamic fighter in the former Soviet state of Tajikistan, according to testimony by U.S. authorities at pretrial hearings. He could not get into that country so he went to Afghanistan, where he managed to get a job with bin Laden.
Bin Laden, who traces his ancestry to Yemen, preferred to surround himself with people from that country. Prosecutors said Hamdan was first hired to work on the terrorist leader's farms, then won a promotion to driver, doubling as a bodyguard.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Hamdan drove bin Laden in a convoy of vehicles racing among safehouses as the United States tried to pinpoint the al-Qaida leader's whereabouts. He broke away in early October to evacuate his daughter and pregnant wife from Kandahar during the U.S.-led invasion.
Detained and charged
After leaving them at the Pakistan border, he headed back to Kandahar. But he was stopped at a roadblock by Afghan troops and turned over to U.S. forces. At the time, he allegedly had two surface-to-air missiles in his car.
He was taken to Guantanamo in May 2002 and selected as one of the first inmates to face war-crimes charges, setting off a legal odyssey that has severely tested the Bush administration's war-on-terror detention policies.
A challenge by his attorneys led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down an earlier version of the Guantanamo tribunals in 2006, but the Republican-controlled Congress responded by authorizing a slightly revised system. Prosecutors say they plan to charge as many as 80 prisoners.
Seven years into his detention, Hamdan has expressed frustration that all the maneuvering hasn't meant any improvements for him. He wears a tan sports coat over a white robe to court and often grins at the judge, but has threatened to boycott the trial. This week he asked his attorneys in court what use they are since he is still held in an individual, maximum-security cell.
He complained that a section of the prison where he was held for several months was "like a graveyard. Like when you place a dead person in a tomb."
But military prosecutors say he belongs in an individual cell because of disciplinary problems, including a history of inciting other detainees to hassle guards. In one episode, they say, he had to be warned twice to stop kicking his cell door. In 2005, he allegedly threw a cup of urine at a guard.
On the witness stand this week, Hamdan said he has tried to control his temper by drawing a sign that says "Don't get angry."
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