By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, April 29 -- The first sign that Salim Ahmed Hamdan would not participate in his military hearing here Tuesday was his garb: a khaki prison uniform, instead of the sport coat and traditional Yemeni garb he wore the previous day.
Alert and precise, Hamdan asked immediately to speak to the Navy captain presiding over his case. He then attacked the untested procedures under which his fate is to be decided by a panel of officers in the military force that has jailed him -- sometimes in isolation -- for the past seven years.
Hamdan told the judge he would boycott the proceedings and bar his appointed defense team from representing him, on grounds that the military commission process is a sham concocted by Washington. He railed against the lack of humanitarian rights at Guantanamo Bay, the lack of access to the news media and to human rights groups.
"I would like the law, I would like justice. Nothing else. Just try me with the law and with justice," Hamdan said through an interpreter, a smile creeping onto his face. "I will tell you at the end, thank you."
Although the military's rules allow the commission hearings to move forward without a defendant's cooperation, Hamdan's rejection of the proceedings could throw one of the government's highest-profile prosecutions into turmoil.
His case is slated to be the first presented here, beginning at the end of May, and U.S. officials had hoped it would showcase the fairness of a system that has been roundly criticized for its departures from the established procedures of other military and civilian courts. Instead, a defiant stand by Hamdan -- allegedly a former driver for Osama bin Laden -- could demonstrate to other detainees that they have the power to attack the system by simply not showing up.
Moreover, at the morning hearing, Hamdan gained new support for his argument that the legal proceedings scheduled to unfold here in coming months have been tainted by politics.
In a written statement read at the hearing by one of Hamdan's attorneys, a member of the Defense Department's prosecution team said the Pentagon's top legal adviser in its commissions office wanted to pursue certain cases ahead of others because they would "seize the imagination of the American public" and make a splash.
Lt. Col. William Britt, the prosecution member, attributed the remark to Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the chief adviser to Susan Crawford, who oversees the commissions process. Crawford previously served as the Pentagon's inspector general when Vice President Cheney was defense secretary.
On Monday, Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the former head of the military commissions prosecution office, similarly said in sworn testimony here that he heard Hartmann say bringing charges against some of the most notorious Guantanamo detainees before this year's elections could have "strategic political value."
The current chief prosecutor, Col. Lawrence Morris, argued Tuesday morning, however, that Hartmann has not improperly interfered in pending cases, but instead used his role to ask important questions. Morris said Davis's complaints are outgrowths of his "bitterness" toward Hartmann, with whom he had a rocky office relationship.
Morris also described Hartmann as an aggressive general who lacks tact. He said Davis's dislike of Hartmann "didn't put him in exclusive company." Still, Morris said that nothing Hartmann said or did had affected Hamdan's case, and argued that it should be heard despite assertions by Hamdan's attorneys that Hartmann's acts had sabotaged its legitimacy.
Capt. Keith J. Allred, who presided over today's hearing, called Hamdan's own statement eloquent. He told Hamdan he understood his frustration after long confinement but implored him to participate.
"This trial will give you an opportunity to see the evidence against you, after all these years. It will give you the opportunity to call your witnesses, and a group of people who we hope will be fair and impartial will make a decision about your guilt or your innocence," Allred said.
Allred said Hamdan should have "great faith in American law" because his fate has already been considered once by the Supreme Court, which decided in June 2006 that an earlier system of military commissions was unlawful and did not respect the international laws of war.
"You were the winner. Your name is printed in our law books. You beat the United States once in our system with these attorneys who are here with you today," Allred said of the decision, which forced the Bush administration to obtain explicit congressional support for revised procedures.
Allred further said that the commission will proceed with or without Hamdan, and that if Hamdan fired his attorneys, others would be appointed to represent him. Allred argued that the current commission system is the law of the land, and is fair.
Hamdan, however, said the conditions of his confinement and the system that will decide his fate are both unfair. "What do you want from us?" Hamdan asked, at one point raising his hands and at another saying his words were not for Allred but for the American government. "You want us to confess to things we did not do. Right now I personally will admit to anything you want me to, but give me a just court."
Joe McMillan, one of Hamdan's civilian attorneys, said "it was a fairly extraordinary exchange" that "demonstrates the concerns our client has." He said the defense team still hopes to meet with Hamdan again, despite Hamdan's decision to dismiss his attorneys.
Harry Schneider, another of Hamdan's civilian attorneys, said Hamdan endured more than 30 interrogations, and that he was never told he had the right to an attorney or to remain silent. His defense team also has said that Hamdan was beaten and interrogated while in painful stress positions.