US military convicts man who drove bin Laden of supporting terrorism


US:SIX US military officers convicted Osama bin Laden's former driver yesterday of supporting terrorism but cleared him of more serious conspiracy charges in the first demonstration of the Bush administration's much-condemned legal regime at Guantánamo.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni who said he earned $200 (€130) a month as bin Laden's driver and occasional bodyguard, was the first person to face a US war crimes tribunal since the second World War.

While Hamdan was convicted of providing menial services to bin Laden - driving and ferrying weapons - the uniformed jurors cleared him of conspiring in terrorist attacks.

The conclusion of Hamdan's trial gives the Bush administration its first guilty verdict against any of the hundreds of detainees who have passed through Guantánamo since the offshore detention camp was created six years ago.

Reporters covering the trial said Hamdan, who is in his 40s, held his head in his hands and wept when the verdict was read.

It took the officers about eight hours over three days to reach its decision. Hamdan, who was to be sentenced later yesterday, could face a maximum life term.

With the verdict, the Bush administration has the first concrete result of its efforts to create a new set of legal rules for detainees in the war on terror. The administration chose Guantánamo as a repository for al-Qaeda suspects and detainees captured in Afghanistan because it believed the offshore camp could operate outside the reach of the US court system.

White House and Pentagon officials immediately held the conclusion of Hamdan's trial as proof that, after long delays and successful supreme court challenges by detainee lawyers, Guantánamo had a fully functioning legal system. "The military commission system is a fair and appropriate legal process," the White House spokesman, Tony Fratto, said. "We look forward to other cases moving forward to trial."

It is unlikely that Hamdan's conviction will provide international legitimacy to Guantánamo. Lawyers and human-rights activists noted that much of his trial was conducted in secret, and that the prosecution relied on information obtained through 40 interrogation sessions, some by CIA agents.

Lawyers also said the single charge on which he was convicted had never before been considered a war crime, and was not regarded as such when he was detained.

Congress designated the act of providing material support to terrorism as a war crime when it authorised the tribunals in 2006.

Hamdan, captured at a roadblock in Afghanistan in November 2001, emerged as a minor figure in the war on terror. At his trial, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged September 11th, 2001, attacks mastermind, was dismissive of his role in al-Qaeda.

Even so, the administration believes the Hamdan case clears the way for the cases of 20 other detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

The legal rationale for Guantánamo was thrown into doubt last June when the supreme court ruled that detainees had the right to challenge their detention in US courts.

But Joe Della Vedova, a military commissions spokesman, said only about 60 to 80 of the Guantánamo detainees were likely to be put up on war crimes charges. At present, there are about 265 detainees. - ( Guardian service)