Former bin Laden driver pleads innocent

July 21, 2008 1:40:53 PM PDT
The first Guantanamo war crimes trial began Monday with a not guilty plea from a former driver and alleged bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni, entered the plea through his lawyer at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba.

He is the first prisoner to face a U.S. war crimes trial since World War II.

Judge Keith Allred, a Navy captain, called a jury pool of uniformed American military officers into the courtroom for questioning by lawyers on both sides. A conviction on charges of conspiracy and supporting terrorism could lead to a life sentence for Hamdan.

"You must impartially hear the evidence," Allred told the potential jurors. "He must be presumed to be innocent."

The 13 officers were hand-picked by the Pentagon and flown in from other U.S. bases over the weekend. Hamdan's lawyers asked if they had any friends or family affected by the Sept. 11 attacks to see if any should be excluded as too biased to serve. A minimum of five officers must be selected for a trial under tribunal rules.

Hamdan, who is in his late 30s, wore a khaki prison jumpsuit to the courthouse overlooking an abandoned airport runway. The flowing white robe and headdress he wore at pretrial hearings was not cleaned in time for his trial, said Charles Swift, one of his civilian attorneys.

The trial is expected to take three to four weeks, with testimony from nearly two dozen Pentagon witnesses.

Hamdan was captured at a roadblock in Afghanistan in November 2001, allegedly with two surface-to-air missiles in the car. But his lawyers say he was merely a low-level driver and mechanic without any role in the al-Qaida conspiracy against the United States.

Hamdan was taken to Guantanamo in May 2002 and selected as one of the first inmates to face prosecution. His case has created repeated legal obstacles for the Pentagon including a Supreme Court ruling that struck down an earlier version of the tribunal system.

Allred indicated earlier Monday he would not allow the government to use some of the evidence interrogators obtained from Hamdan during his detention in Afghanistan. Defense lawyers have argued those statements were tainted by "coercive" techniques and the fact that interrogators did not advise him of a right against self-incrimination.

The U.S. has so far charged 20 Guantanamo prisoners and military officials say they expect to prosecute about 80 in all.