In a stunning turnaround, the former chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay says he will be a defence witness for the driver of terror chief Osama bin Laden.
US Air Force Col Morris Davis, who resigned in October over alleged political interference in the US military tribunals, said he would appear at a hearing for Salim Ahmed Hamdan.
“I expect to be called as a witness ... I’m more than happy to testify,” Col Davis said from Washington. He called it “an opportunity to tell the truth”.
At the April pre-trial hearing inside the US military base in south-east Cuba, Hamdan’s defence team plans to argue that alleged political interference claimed by Davis violates the Military Commissions Act, Hamdan’s military lawyer, US Navy Lt Brian Mizer, says.
Col Davis alleges, among other things, that Pentagon general counsel William Haynes said in August 2005 that any acquittals of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo would make the US look bad, calling into question the fairness of the proceedings.
“He said, ’We can’t have acquittals, we’ve got to have convictions’,” Col Davis recalled.
The former chief prosecutor says the statement by Mr Haynes, first reported this week in The Nation magazine, occurred after the general counsel compared the Guantanamo tribunals to Nuremberg and Col Davis said he pointed out some of those tried at the end of the Second World War were acquitted, giving them more credibility in the eyes of the world.
At the time, Col Davis said, he shrugged off the comments. But he came to view them as alarming after he was placed in a chain of command under Mr Haynes and the prosecutor began to sense political pressure on his work.
A Pentagon spokesman, US Navy Cmdr Jeffrey Gordon, denied that Mr Haynes made such a comment. He also denied the former prosecutor’s allegations of political interference, which he had repeated in newspaper opinion columns and in interviews in recent months.
If the judge rejected the motion to dismiss, Lt Mizer said the defence would seek to remove two top officials in the military commissions system – legal adviser Air Force Brig Gen Thomas Hartmann and Convening Authority Susan Crawford – from Hamdan’s case. This would probably result in further delays to a trial that has been stalled by legal challenges.
It is not clear whether the Pentagon – which defends the commission system as fair – will allow Col Davis to testify. In December, two months after he resigned as the chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals, the US Defence Department barred Col Davis from appearing before a Senate Judiciary sub-committee.
The US holds about 275 men at Guantanamo and plans to prosecute about 80 before military commissions. The Pentagon charged six detainees with murder and war crimes this month over the September 11 2001 terror attacks and said they could be executed if convicted.
Hamdan faces up to life in prison if the tribunal convicts him of conspiracy and supporting terrorism. His lawyers admit he was a driver for bin Laden, but say he had no significant role in planning or carrying out attacks against the US.
Col Davis, now head of the US Air Force judiciary, said he believed “there are some very bad men at Guantanamo and some of them deserve the death penalty”. But he says civilian political appointees have improperly interfered with the work of military prosecutors.
“I think the rules are fair,” he said. “I think the problem is having political appointees injected into the system. They are looking for a political outcome, not justice.”