RICHMOND, Virginia – Can a Russian military veteran accused of orchestrating and leading a Taliban attack on U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009 be convicted in civilian court of being a terrorist?
That novel question was handed to an American jury Friday.
Irek Hamidullin is charged with 15 counts, including providing material support to terrorism, trying to destroy U.S. military aircraft and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. Several of the charges are punishable by up to life in prison.
Experts have said this is a rare case of an enemy combatant being captured on the battlefield and brought to the U.S. for trial in federal court. The Obama administration is trying to show it can use the criminal court system to deal with terror suspects — a move criticized by some lawmakers who believe such cases should be handled by military tribunals.
Defense attorneys had tried unsuccessfully to have the indictment dismissed, arguing that Hamidullin was essentially a prisoner of war and ineligible for trial in civilian court.
Defense attorney Paul Gill renewed the argument to the jury.
"This is war — everyone talks about it, that's what everyone has heard," he said. "Those kinds of conflicts do not and should not come to this court."
Prosecutors said federal law protects U.S. soldiers no matter where they are. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Gill said the evidence clearly shows he violated U.S. laws.
"He made confident, consistent and corroborated confessions," Gill said in closing arguments after five days of testimony.
Hamidullin did not testify. In the recorded interviews, he talked about planning the attack but denied ever firing a shot. He told investigators he was doing "God's work."
The judge barred the government from using the word "terrorist" and prosecutors were not allowed to mention Osama bin Laden.
According to U.S. officials, Hamidullin is a Russian veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan who stayed in the country and joined the Haqqani Network, a Taliban-affiliated militant group. He allegedly led three groups of insurgents in a 2009 attack on Afghan border police in Khowst province.
When U.S. helicopters responded to the attack, prosecutors say, the insurgents tried to fire at them with anti-aircraft weapons, which malfunctioned. Hamidullin was the lone survivor among about 30 insurgents. The coalition forces sustained no casualties.
Paul Gill argued that Hamidullin only attacked Afghan border police, not U.S. helicopters, and that there was reasonable doubt that he fired his AK-47 at soldiers who arrived later to conduct a battle damage assessment. Some U.S. soldiers said they saw Hamidullin shoot, while others said they did not see him fire the weapon.
The defense attorney also said statements Hamidullin made in hours of secretly videotaped interrogations were calculated to obtain favorable treatment by his U.S. captors and avoid being turned over to the Afghans, who would have killed him.
"We know by experience that people say things that are exaggerated or untrue," the defense attorney said.
The jury also viewed video of U.S. helicopters, equipped with infrared and night vision equipment, shooting the insurgents.
Hamidullin said in one recorded interview that the helicopters "shoot us like insects."