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Terrorism & Security

Legal debate continues after the first conviction of a Guantánamo detainee

A mixed verdict against Salim Ahmed Hamdan has his defense lawyers preparing to appeal to federal civilian courts.

By Liam Stack / August 7, 2008

The first war crimes trial held in the United States since World War II ended this week in a mixed verdict against Yemeni national Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the personal driver of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. After a two-week-long trial and three days of deliberations, the military court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, convicted Mr. Hamdan of providing material support for terrorism by driving Mr. bin Laden around Afghanistan. In spite of the conviction, legal debate regarding the trial rages on.

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Hamdan is the first of as many as 80 Guantanamo detainees expected to be tried for war crimes in the near future.

Critics of the court say the trial did not adhere to American standards of justice and that Hamdan, a chauffeur, was not an important player in Al Qaeda, a view echoed by the presiding judge in the case.

According to Reuters, Hamdan was acquitted of the more serious charge of conspiring with Al Qaeda to kill civilians.

While Hamdan was convicted on five counts of providing material support for terrorism, the judge said the charges duplicated each other and ordered that he be sentenced only for one count, which he summarized as "driving Mr. bin Laden around Afghanistan."

The mixed verdict is "a setback for military prosecutors," who had hoped for a conviction on all counts, reports The New York Times. The article adds that both sides tried to emphasize the importance of the trial by portraying it as the heir to the 1940s Nuremberg trials against the former Nazi leadership. The defense team criticized the Nazi rhetoric as theater, saying that personal servants of the Nazis were never considered war criminals.

The rules for the Hamdan trial were laid out in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which was modified after the Supreme Court ruled in June that defendants convicted before military courts must be allowed to appeal to a federal civilian court.

Still, human rights activists argue the trials do not meet American or international standards of justice, reports the Associated Press.

Under the military commission, Hamdan did not have all the rights normally accorded either by U.S. civilian or military courts. The judge allowed secret testimony and hearsay evidence. Hamdan was not judged by a jury of his peers and he received no Miranda warning about his rights.
Hamdan's attorneys said interrogations at the center of the government's case were tainted by coercive tactics, including sleep deprivation and solitary confinement.
All that is in contrast to the courts-martial used to prosecute American troops in Iraq and Vietnam, which accorded defendants more rights.

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