Osama bin Laden’s driver walks out on Guantanamo trial

gitmo-pris.jpgGUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – AP | Osama bin Laden’s former driver walked out on his war-crimes tribunal Tuesday, saying he did not believe justice was possible at the U.S. military base where he has been held for nearly six years.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni, is the fourth alleged al-Qaida operative at Guantanamo Bay to refuse to participate in America’s first U.S. war-crimes courts since World War II – a system that he says lacks the fairness of traditional U.S. courts.

“I do not want to come to this court because there is no such thing as justice here,” said Hamdan, who smiled as he explained his reasoning in a polite, 40-minute exchange with the judge.

The judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, said he empathized with Hamdan’s frustrations over his prison conditions and the delays in a trial that has been derailed twice by legal challenges. But he encouraged Hamdan not to fire his attorneys, noting they won a 2006 Supreme Court verdict with his case that struck down an earlier tribunal system.

“You beat the United States once in our system with these attorneys that are here with you today,” Allred said.

After a short recess, the pretrial hearing reconvened without Hamdan at this U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.

Hamdan’s defense attorneys said they hoped Hamdan would eventually return to the courtroom. He threatened a boycott Monday but stayed for the hearing.

Hamdan was captured at a roadblock in southern Afghanistan in November 2001, allegedly with two surface-to-air missiles in the car. He faces up to life in prison if the tribunal convicts him of conspiracy and supporting terrorism. The defense says Hamdan was just a low-level bin Laden employee, not a hard-core terrorist.

Earlier Tuesday, Hamdan’s lead defense attorney said that a second military prosecutor has accused a Pentagon official of manipulating the prosecution of war crime suspects.

The Pentagon official, Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, allegedly told the prosecutor that certain cases against Guantanamo prisoners should be pursued over others to sway public opinion, military defense lawyer Navy. Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer said.

The prosecutor, Army Lt. Col. William Britt, made the allegation in an affidavit submitted in an internal Pentagon investigation of the Office of Military Commissions, which is in charge of prosecuting the Guantanamo prisoners.

Mizer read a portion of the affidavit in court as he sought dismissal of the charges against Hamdan on the grounds that improper meddling by senior officials has tainted the tribunals.

Britt told the investigators that Hartmann, whose role is to give legal advice to the military commissions, directed him to pursue certain cases that would “seize the imagination of the American public,” Mizer said in court.

The allegation is significant because Britt would be the second senior member of the prosecution to accuse the Pentagon of manipulating the prosecutions at Guantanamo, where more than 275 men are still held on suspicion of terrorism or links to al-Qaida or the Taliban.

On Monday, a former chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Morris Davis, testified that Pentagon officials stressed that charging high-profile detainees could have political value for U.S. elections and pushed for speedy convictions to keep the system from “imploding.”

Three other detainees earlier indicated they will boycott the Guantanamo trials. Other military judges have said the trials would continue without the detainees, but defense lawyers have indicated they will challenge orders to defend their clients without consent.