Judge Bars Evidence Against Terrorism Suspect at Guantanamo Trial

By Carol J. Williams | A military judge says some statements by Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, were made in ‘highly coercive’ settings. It could set a standard for other cases.

WASHINGTON — The military judge overseeing the first war crimes trial against a terrorism suspect at Guantanamo Bay agreed Monday to bar some evidence against Osama bin Laden’s former driver because it was obtained in “highly coercive environments and conditions.”

On the trial’s opening day, Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred denied defense appeals to exclude other statements Salim Ahmed Hamdan made during interrogation by U.S. agents in Afghanistan as well as during his more than six years’ imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The judge said he would withhold judgment on a May 2003 interrogation until the defense had time to review 600 pages of detention records, which the government did not turn over until Sunday — the night before trial.

The exclusion of evidence Allred considered coerced could set a standard for admissibility in other war crimes cases due before the tribunal in the coming months, including that of the self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind.

“The interests of justice are not served by admitting these statements because of the highly coercive environments and conditions under which they were made,” Allred said of statements Hamdan made while held by U.S. forces in the Afghan outposts of Panjshir and Bagram.

During his imprisonment at Bagram, Hamdan was reportedly beaten, deprived of sleep and informed by other prisoners and guards that at least one suspect had been beaten so badly that he died.

Allred’s ruling to suppress coerced testimony could make it difficult for other tribunal judges to ignore similar claims, such as in the case against confessed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four others who face the death penalty.

Mohammed is one of two Guantanamo prisoners known to have been waterboarded while in CIA custody abroad. The technique, which creates the sensation of drowning, has been deemed tantamount to torture by many U.S. allies, legal scholars and human rights advocates.

Hamdan, a Yemeni who earned $200 a month driving Bin Laden in Afghanistan, was captured in November 2001. He is charged with conspiracy and material support for terrorism, and faces up to life imprisonment if convicted by the jury — actually, a military commission made up of six senior officers and an alternate.

Allred had been asked by Hamdan’s defense team to suppress numerous statements the defendant made under questioning after his capture near Kandahar, including two videotaped interrogations. The judge said he would allow the videos to be played for the commissioners when testimony gets underway later this week. But he agreed to exclude other statements made before Hamdan’s May 2002 transfer from Afghanistan field prisons to the Guantanamo detention center for terrorism suspects.

Aside from withholding judgment on the May 2003 interrogation pending the defense review, the judge said interrogation results would be allowed into evidence only if the interrogators who conducted the sessions were available for cross-examination. Much of the evidence the government wanted to introduce was drawn from interrogations in which the notes and records of those involved were destroyed.

The tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, said he hadn’t decided whether to appeal the ruling.

“We need to evaluate . . . to what extent it has an impact on our ability to fully portray his criminality in this case, but also what it might set out for future cases,” Morris told the Associated Press.

Hamdan’s trial is expected to take about three weeks. He has indicated at times that he may boycott the proceedings, and has made conflicting statements as to what degree he will allow his Navy lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, to represent him in his absence.

Hamdan testified during pretrial hearings last week that he was subjected to sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and sexual humiliation during interrogations at Guantanamo. Allred largely rejected motions to dismiss statements made during interrogations there, saying the techniques employed by detention officials could be “rationally related to good order and discipline.”

Officers of the Joint Task Force that runs the prison and interrogation network at Guantanamo said Hamdan was deprived of “comfort items” such as personal hygiene products as punishment for violating camp rules.

Hamdan is the first of nearly 800 men brought to Guantanamo over the last 6 1/2 years to face trial in the first U.S.-administered war crimes cases since World War II. About 265 remain at the sprawling compound of maximum-security prisons, open-air cells and a barracks-like facility for a few dozen of the most cooperative prisoners. Most of the others have been repatriated.

War crimes charges have been sworn out against 21 Guantanamo prisoners over the last 18 months. Of those prisoners, 11 have been arraigned. All but two, Hamdan and Canadian Omar Khadr, have indicated they will refuse to attend their trials as a show of contempt for a process they say is inherently stacked against them.

Thirteen potential jurors were brought to Guantanamo over the weekend. During questioning, several indicated that they carried emotional scars from the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed or endangered friends and colleagues. The Pentagon was one of the targets.

The six jurors and one alternate were sworn in Monday. At least two potential jurors appeared to have been excluded because of their raw feelings associated with Sept. 11.