WASHINGTON – The first war crimes trial at Guantanamo Bay can begin Monday, a federal judge ruled, saying civilian courts should let the military process play out as Congress intended.
The decision is a victory for the Bush administration, which plans to use military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects, including those charged in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Had the trial been delayed, it would have been a sign that the entire process might crumble under the weight of judicial scrutiny.
But U.S. District Judge James Robertson on Thursday rejected an effort by Usama bin Laden's former driver, Salim Hamdan, to postpone his trial. Hamdan argued he would suffer irreparable harm if he were prosecuted before he could challenge the legality of the process.
Hamdan hoped to capitalize on last month's Supreme Court ruling, which said Guantanamo Bay prisoners can challenge their detention in federal court. He said that ruling meant he couldn't go to trial until he's had the opportunity to argue that he isn't an enemy combatant.
If courts held that to be the case, every detainee at the U.S. naval base in Cuba could have used court challenges to delay his trial for months or years. But Robertson refused to step in.
"Courts should respect the balance that Congress has struck," he said, adding that "Hamdan is to face a military commission designed by Congress acting on guidelines handed down by the Supreme Court."
At Guantanamo Bay, military prosecutors said the ruling gave them more confidence that the trials would go forward against 80 detainees, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others charged in the attacks.
Army Col. Lawrence Morris, the chief prosecutor, predicted the trials would soon become routine.
"It will start looking like the space shuttle," Morris told reporters. "At some point you look and somebody asks, 'Is there a space shuttle orbiting or not,' and you don't know anymore because it's no longer an extraordinary event."
Hamdan's Pentagon-appointed attorney, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, said he intends to prove the Yemeni was merely a driver and a mechanic for bin Laden — not an Al Qaeda terrorist — but he doubts a fair trial is possible.
"This trial is going to be proceed, but it's not going to be full, open and fair," Mizer told reporters. "There are fundamental flaws in the system."
Defense attorneys said they informed Hamdan of Robertson's ruling but he had no reaction.
There is no guarantee that Robertson's ruling means all the military commission trials will go forward. But judges in Washington's federal courthouse, where hundreds of detainee lawsuits are pending, have said they were waiting to see how Robertson handled this first case.
Robertson, who was appointed to the bench by President Clinton, seemed concerned at one point that government attorneys were unable to give him a clear answer about what constitutional rights prisoners have at Guantanamo Bay.
But he said he was obligated to let the process continue. 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. His ruling came shortly after a military judge at Guantanamo Bay also denied Hamdan's request for a postponement.
Hamdan was captured at a roadblock in southern Afghanistan in November 2001, allegedly with two surface-to-air missiles in the car. He could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of conspiracy and supporting terrorism. The defense says Hamdan was a low-level bin Laden employee, not a hard-core terrorist.
The Justice Department said it was pleased with the decision.
"The government looks forward to presenting its case against Mr. Hamdan to the commission," spokesman Erik Ablin said. "Under the procedures established by Congress in the Military Commissions Act, Mr. Hamdan will receive greater procedural protections than those ever before provided to defendants in military commission trials."
Hamdan's attorneys can rush to an appeals court to try to reverse Robertson's order but the court would need to move quickly in time to stop the trial.
Justice Department attorneys wrote in court documents that prosecuting suspected terrorists is a key part of the war on terrorism, and a necessary step toward closing the Guantanamo Bay prison.