A Pentagon jury will consider its a verdict on a former driver and alleged bodyguard for Osama bin Laden today as the US nears completion of its first war crimes trial since the Second World War.
The panel of six American military officers, hand-picked by the US Defence Department, will begin its second day of deliberations at Guantanamo Bay US Navy base in Cuba in the case against Salim Hamdan.
A conviction on charges of conspiracy and supporting terrorism could keep Hamdan, a Yemeni, in prison for the rest of his life.
In closing arguments yesterday, prosecutors said Hamdan’s service to the al-Qaida chief over five years in Afghanistan helped his boss execute terrorist plots including the September 11 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
“He is an al-Qaida warrior,” US Justice Department prosecutor John Murphy said, pointing to the detainee who wore a white robe and a tan sports coat.
Defence lawyers say Hamdan was a low-level bin Laden employee who stayed with him only for the €125-a-month salary. In an effort to prove he was no hardened terrorist, they described Hamdan’s co-operation in the hunt for the al-Qaida chief following his capture in Afghanistan in November 2001.
His Pentagon-appointed lawyer, Navy Lt Cmdr Brian Mizer, said in his closing argument that Hamdan offered to provide “critical details” under an undisclosed arrangement described in secret testimony last Thursday.
“You know what happened, how we squandered that opportunity,” Lt Cmdr Mizer said in reference to the testimony of two US special forces officers who encountered Hamdan at Bagram air base in late 2001.
In other testimony at the two-week trial, Hamdan’s former interrogators said he led them to al-Qaida safe houses in Afghanistan, provided information about the movement of key terrorists and even offered to testify against a suspected mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing.
The judge, US Navy captain Keith Allred, told the jurors that four of the six must find Hamdan guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” to convict him.
But even if they find him innocent, Hamdan may not be released. The military retains the right to hold “enemy combatants” considered a threat to the US - even those cleared of charges by the tribunals.
A guilty verdict would be followed immediately by a sentencing hearing at Guantanamo. The sentence would have to be approved by the Pentagon official who oversees the tribunal system, Susan Crawford, and the verdict would be reviewed automatically by a special military appeals court in Washington.
The military has charged 21 of the 265 men held at Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of terrorism or links to al Qaida or the Taliban. Military prosecutors say they plan trials for about 80 inmates.
So far, only one Guantanamo inmate has been convicted. Australian David Hicks reached a plea agreement that sent him home to serve a nine-month prison sentence.