U.S. asks for go-ahead in military trial

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Bush administration asked a federal appeals court Monday to allow the military trial of Osama bin Laden’s driver to go forward without first determining whether he was a prisoner of war.

The man, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, 34, of Yemen, is one of 550 detainees at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, whom the administration considers “enemy combatants,” a status that affords them fewer legal protections than prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled in November that Hamdan was entitled to a hearing to determine whether he was a prisoner of war, a decision that called into question the administration’s plans to try alleged terrorists as enemy combatants. Robertson also said the guidelines for the trials must be changed to comply with military justice rules.

Appealing the decision, the administration said Monday that Robertson’s ruling was “an unprecedented interference with the president’s exercise of his constitutional authority as Commander in Chief.” The appeal was filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The administration argues that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to suspected members of bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network, a position that was spelled out in a January 2002 memo to Bush from White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, whom the president has nominated to be attorney general.

A provision of the 1949 treaty calls for a hearing to determine whether detainees should be given prisoner of war status, but the administration rejects the idea that Guantanamo detainees must be accorded such hearings.

Gonzales’ critics cite his memo as among the reasons the Senate should reject his nomination, which is considered unlikely.

The government has charged Hamdan with conspiracy to commit war crimes, murder and terrorism. His lawyer has said the $200-a-month driver had no connection to Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime or al-Qaida.

Only four detainees have been charged. Hamdan’s trial was to have begun Dec. 7.

The appeals court scheduled arguments in the case March 8.