First Guantanmo trial can start Monday

July 17, 2008 10:17:11 AM PDT
The first war crimes trial at Guantanamo Bay can begin Monday, a federal judge has ruled, saying civilian courts should let the military process play out as Congress intended.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson on Thursday rejected an effort by Osama bin Laden's former driver, Salim Hamdan, to postpone his trial. Hamdan argued he would suffer irreparable harm if his was tried before he could challenge the legality of the process.

Robertson's ruling is a victory for the Bush administration, which plans to use the military commission process to prosecute alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others charged in the 2001 attacks.

The administration suffered a setback last month when the Supreme Court ruled the Guantanamo Bay detainees can challenge their detention in federal court. Hamdan's attorneys hoped to use that ruling to delay his trial. But Robertson refused.

"Hamdan is to face a military commission designed by Congress based on guidelines handed down by the Supreme Court," Robertson said.

He said Hamdan can raise any procedural challenges during trial and, if convicted, he can ask military and civilian appeals courts to settle constitutional questions.

Robertson's decision came shortly after a military judge at Guantanamo Bay also denied Hamdan's request for a postponement.

While Robertson stressed that his ruling only affects Hamdan, judges overseeing hundreds of other detainee cases have said they were watching to see how he would handle the case.

The Justice Department argued that prosecuting suspected terrorists is a key part of the war on terrorism, and a necessary step toward closing the Guantanamo Bay prison.

"Putting the military commission proceedings on hold now would be contrary to these interests and hamper the government's war efforts, not to mention constitute a significant intrusion into areas within the province of the executive branch," government attorneys said.

Hamdan's attorneys can appeal the ruling but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit would have to act quickly to keep the trial from going forward. His attorneys said they had yet to decide whether to appeal.