GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – Usama bin Laden's (search) chauffeur was formally charged Tuesday at the first U.S. military tribunal to convene since World War II, and the defendant's lawyer quickly challenged the panel over its impartiality and questioned the proceeding's fairness.
Salim Ahmed Hamdan (search), a 34-year-old Yemeni, declined to enter a plea until motions filed by his military-appointed lawyer attacking the legality of the proceeding are decided, probably in November.
Hamdan, who was not shackled and wore a flowing white robe, smiled occasionally as he listened to an Arabic interpreter through headphones, even after hearing charges that could bring life in prison: conspiracy to commit war crimes, including attacking civilians, murder and terrorism. He isn't charged with any specific violent act.
His lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, filed challenges against four of the five panel members, including the presiding officer, and an alternate, questioning their capacity to serve fairly.
The appointing authority, John D. Altenburg Jr., a retired Army general, will decide whether any of the commission members should be removed, but was not clear how soon he might rule.
"It is important that these proceedings not only be fair, but appear fair to the world," Swift said during the hearing, which lasted eight hours.
He challenged the presiding officer, Army Col. Peter E. Brownback, a former military judge, on the grounds that he came out of retirement to serve on the panel and that he is not a standing member of a bar association.
"This presiding officer would not even be qualified to be a civilian defense counsel," Swift said, pointing to Brownback's return from retirement and his lack of bar association membership.
Swift raised questions on panel member Marine Col. Jack K. Sparks Jr., citing concerns over Sparks' feelings about a reservist under his command who died in the Sept. 11 terror attack on New York's World Trade Center while working as a firefighter. Another panel member armed U.S. planes with Hellfire missiles in Afghanistan.
He also said he was concerned that commission member Marine Col. R. Thomas Bright had said he was in charge of the logistics of moving detainees to Guantanamo; that Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy K. Toomey was an intelligence officer in Afghanistan; and that an alternate, Army Lt. Col. Curt S. Cooper, expressed strong emotions about the 2001 attacks and concern for the safety of himself and his family.
"Clearly the impartiality of these panel members is a concern to us," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (search) who was one of several rights activists observing the hearing.
Hamdan has said he earned a pittance for his family as bin Laden's driver before the Sept. 11 attacks, but denies involvement in terrorism. U.S. officials allege he served as the Al Qaeda (search) leader's bodyguard and delivered weapons to his operatives.
"It was really a day of mixed emotions," Swift said of Hamdan, who has not been allowed to wear anything but his orange prison garb and has lost more than 50 pounds. "He has wanted a process for a very long time ... But like many people he has concerns."
Brownback gave Swift until Oct. 1 to file other motions and said the prosectuion would have until Oct. 15 to respond.
Tribunal members and prosecutors asked the media not to use the names of the panel members, fearing possible retribution. But their names were previously made public and have been published.
Brownback is the only member of commission to have formal legal training. Asked by Swift whether he thought the proceedings were legal, Brownback said he chose not to answer.
Swift asked panel members if they would be willing to consider the legality of President Bush's order setting up the commissions, which will allow secret evidence and no appeals. They all said yes.
Swift asked other questions of the commission members during a closed session to discuss classified information.
During portions of the hearing, images of Hamdan appeared blurry on closed-circuit TV, and with a five-minute delay. News service reporters chose to watch from outside the courtroom via television so they could send updates quickly.
In a handout issued before the hearing, Swift said he planned to ask that the charges be dismissed.
He said it was wrong for the commission to proceed without a separate ruling on Hamdan's status as an "enemy combatant," a classification that gives fewer legal protections than afforded prisoners of war. That classification was used to justify trying Hamdan and others before military commissions rather than courts martial or U.S. civilian courts.
Hamdan and three other men being arraigned this week face charges that could bring life in prison, but other detainees could face the death penalty.
The pretrial hearings were initially expected to last four days, but the first hearing progressed slowly due to delays for translation. It could be months before the actual trials begin.
Swift says that Hamdan was a pilgrim who took a job at bin Laden's farm on his way to Tajikistan in 1996 or 1997, that he had no knowledge of bin Laden's activities and that he never took up arms against the United States.
The Pentagon alleges Hamdan, who is also known as Saqr al Jaddawi, was bin Laden's driver and bodyguard between February 1996 and Nov. 24, 2001.
The Pentagon also says he transported weapons to Al Qaeda operatives, trained at an Al Qaeda camp and drove in convoys that carried bin Laden. It does not say he took part in any specific acts of violence.
Hamdan's family in Yemen has refused to comment on the charges.
Two others charged with conspiracy are Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul, 33, also of Yemen, and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi, a Sudanese born in 1960. The fourth, David Hicks, 29, of Australia, faces charges of conspiracy to commit war crimes as well as aiding the enemy, and attempted murder for allegedly firing at U.S. or coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Hicks' family arrived Tuesday.
Breaking down in tears after a short news conference with journalists late Tuesday, Hicks' father, Terry, said he was hopeful ahead of Wednesday's hearing but concerned.
It will be the first time he's seen his son in about five years.
"My expectation was that we would have David back to Australia after the first three months," he said, with stepmother Beverly sitting in the audience. "I don't think it is a fair and honest system."