A U.S. military judge has denied prisoner-of-war status to a Guantanamo detainee, putting the former driver for Osama bin Laden in line to be one of the first to face a war crimes tribunal at the base.
The judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, rejected defense arguments that Salim Ahmed Hamdan was a POW and thus beyond the jurisdiction of the Guantanamo tribunals under international law.
Allred said there is credible evidence the Yemeni prisoner was bin Laden's personal driver from 1997 to 2001, occasionally served as a bodyguard for the al-Qaida leader and sometimes picked up and delivered weapons.
"The government has carried its burden of showing ... that the accused is an alien unlawful enemy combatant," Allred wrote in a ruling released Thursday by military authorities.
The ruling is a victory for the Pentagon, which has struggled to prosecute suspected terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo amid repeated legal challenges. The decision clears the way for a trial that could start by spring or early summer.
"This is a sign that we will move forward," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the legal adviser to the military tribunal system.
To underscore that point, Hartmann noted that the military prepared charges Thursday against Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed Haza al-Darbi, a Saudi prisoner at Guantanamo accused of helping to organize an al-Qaida plot to attack a ship in the Strait of Hormuz or off the coast of Yemen.
Charges pending in more cases
The military has charged three of about 290 detainees now held at Guantanamo on suspicion of terrorism or links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. It has charges pending against two, including al-Darbi.
The cases against Hamdan and Canadian Omar Khadr are the furthest along and lawyers say they do not yet know which will face the first U.S. military tribunals since the World War II era.
Hamdan, who U.S. military records show is 37, faces up to life in prison if the tribunal convicts him of conspiracy and supporting terrorism. He was captured in a car with two surface-to-air missiles by Afghan troops in November 2001 and turned over to U.S. forces.
His military defense lawyer, Navy Lt. Brian Mizer, said he is disappointed and may make the ruling part of an eventual appeal if Hamdan is convicted.
"I think the evidence was that he was a prisoner of war," Mizer said. "He was caught taking conventional weapons to a conventional force and ... it's not a crime to be a soldier."
His civilian lawyers, Joseph McMillan and Harry Schneider, noted that the judge's ruling was not a complete loss because he allowed them to raise the issue of Hamdan's combat status again as a defense at trial — when the prosecution must meet a higher burden of proof.
The judge's decision was based on two days of testimony earlier this month at a hearing at Guantanamo.
Hartmann said the U.S. plans to charge 80 to 90 of the Guantanamo detainees, including 15 of the so-called "high-value" ones, a group that includes the admitted architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.
So far, no one has actually been tried at Guantanamo. Detainee David Hicks of Australia earlier avoided trial with a plea bargain that returned him to his homeland to serve his sentence.