GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – A U.S. federal court halted proceedings ahead of the military trial of Usama bin Laden's (search) driver Monday, saying his status as an enemy combatant had to be determined by a competent tribunal.
It was the first time a federal court has halted proceedings ahead of trials before U.S. military commissions, which had been resurrected from World War II, at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (search).
A U.S. District Court judge in Washington halted the trial of Salim Ahmed Hamdan (search), 34, of Yemen, in a lawsuit filed by his lawyers.
"Unless and until a competent tribunal determines that petitioner is not entitled to protections afforded prisoners of war under Article 4 of the Geneva Convention ... of Aug. 12, 1949, he may not be tried by military commission for the offenses with which he is charged," U.S. District Judge James Robertson said in his ruling.
The court also ruled that unless the military commission guidelines are changed to conform to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (search), Hamdan cannot be tried by the commissions and must be moved from the pre-commission wing at the Camp Delta prison camp to the general population.
Four terror suspects set to go before the commissions were moved out of solitary cells recently to a pre-commission wing of Delta.
Hamdan's military-appointed defense lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, also asked the commission Monday to reinstate two members and an alternate who were dismissed after challenges to their impartiality.
Swift said he would not have challenged them in August if he knew his client would be penalized by facing a smaller three-member commission.
Hamdan's military trial was to have begun Dec. 7 at this U.S. base in eastern Cuba.
The ruling in Washington came as lawyers began pretrial motion hearings in the case of Hamdan, who is charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes, murder and terrorism.
Hamdan said he never supported terrorism, was not an Al Qaeda member and only earned a pittance driving bin Laden.
"These commissions were intended for people like Usama bin Laden, not a mechanic who drove people around," Swift said. "The fact that we're doing this will taint the reputation of military justice for years to come."
Hamdan was found to be an enemy combatant last month by a review tribunal — a classification affording fewer legal protections than prisoner of war. His lawyer was barred from representing him at the hearing.
Swift's federal lawsuit is one of more than 60 similar challenges, arguing that the commissions are illegal and should not have jurisdiction.
Since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June cleared the way for detainees to challenge their detentions in U.S. courts, civilian attorneys have poured into Guantanamo to meet with clients.
Some of the 550 prisoners from more than 40 countries have been held for nearly three years, but few have had access to attorneys and only four have been charged.
Since President Bush ordered the commissions, defense attorneys have said the rules are so vague that a fair trial is impossible. There is no specific appeal process, and lawyers are still debating what type of evidence can be used during trials.
The review tribunals were set up after the Supreme Court decision, and since then more than 300 cases have been reviewed. Only one man, a Pakistani, has been freed.