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U.S. court clears way to resume terror trials

Associated Press
Published July 16, 2005


WASHINGTON - A Guantanamo detainee who once was Osama bin Laden's driver can be tried by military tribunal, a federal appeals court ruled Friday, apparently clearing the way for the Pentagon to resume trials suspended when a lower court ruled the procedures unlawful.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled unanimously against Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni.

More broadly it said that the 1949 Geneva Convention governing POWs does not apply to al-Qaida and its members. That supports a key assertion of the Bush administration, which has faced international criticism for holding hundreds of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without full POW protections.

"I think pretty much the entire opinion would be welcomed by the administration. I think there's nothing in there that is adverse to the administration's positions," said Carl Tobias, a professor of law at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "It's a very pro-administration decision."

The Pentagon has argued that it is justified in using what it calls military commissions, or tribunals, to try terror suspects like Hamdan who were captured in the war in Afghanistan because they are "enemy combatants."

Hamdan, who was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001, denies conspiring to engage in acts of terrorism and denies he was a member of al-Qaida. His lawyers say that by working as bin Laden's driver, he simply wanted to earn enough money to return to Yemen, buy his own vehicle and support his family as a driver.

Two lawyers representing Hamdan, Georgetown University law professor Neal Katyal and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles D. Swift, said the appeals court ruling "is contrary to 200 years of constitutional law."

"Today's ruling places absolute trust in the president, unchecked by the Constitution, statutes of Congress and longstanding treaties ratified by the Senate of the United States," the two defense lawyers said in a statement.

Katyal said in an interview that the detainee's legal team plans a further appeal.

The Pentagon had no comment on the ruling, nor did it say whether or when it planned to resume its commission proceedings against Hamdan and three other Guantanamo detainees.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales issued a brief statement praising the decision.

"The president's authority under the laws of our nation to try enemy combatants is a vital part of the global war on terror, and today's decision reaffirms this critical authority," Gonzales said.

Hamdan's trial started last August but was halted when a district court ruled in November that Hamdan could not be tried by a U.S. military commission unless a "competent tribunal" determined first that he was not a POW under the 1949 Geneva Convention. In Friday's ruling, the three judges said that the commission itself is such a competent tribunal and that Hamdan could assert his claim to POW status at the time of his trial before a military commission.

Hamdan's lawyers said President Bush violated the separation of powers in the Constitution when he established military commissions.

The appeals court disagreed, saying Bush relied on Congress' joint resolution authorizing the use of force after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as well as two congressionally enacted laws.

Just 15 of the 520 detainees at Guantanamo Bay have been designated by Bush for such prosecution by military tribunals and only four, including Hamdan, have been charged.

The Pentagon has said it is developing charges against others, and it maintains that those not charged could be held indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay .

[Last modified July 16, 2005, 00:25:11]


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