Guantanamo terrorism convictions proving vulnerable on appeal
Salim Hamdan has been home in his native Yemen for nearly four years since completing his sentence at Guantanamo Bay for providing "material support to terrorism" -- six years of domestic service to Osama bin Laden as gardener, bodyguard and driver.
One of only seven Guantanamo captives to be sentenced for alleged war crimes by the Pentagon's military commissions, Hamdan had his conviction vacated this week by a unanimous federal appeals court panel on grounds that the assistance he provided the late Al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan wasn't defined as a war crime until five years after his 2001 capture.
Hamdan is already at liberty and moving on with his life, his pro bono attorney reported Thursday after informing his client by telephone that his appeal was successful. The 40-year-old taxi driver with a fourth-grade education was pleased to be cleansed of the "war criminal" label but doesn't plan to pursue an uphill battle for compensation, said the attorney, Harry Schneider of Seattle.
Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said the government was still reviewing the ruling and would have no comment.
The ruling will serve as binding precedent in the appeals of other Guantanamo detainees convicted for war crimes ex post facto, Schneider predicted. The next likely beneficiary of the tribunal's overreaching prosecutions, defense attorneys say, could be defiant Al Qaeda propagandist Ali Hamza Bahlul, who is serving a life sentence at the U.S. military prison in southern Cuba.
Within hours of the decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Australian convict David Hicks' lawyer announced that he would seek to have his client's guilty plea revoked and conditions of his release to Australia stricken. Attorney Stephen Kenny also said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Co. that he would pursue compensation for Hicks and an investigation of whether the Canberra government aided and abetted his wrongful imprisonment.
A kangaroo skinner who trained at an Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan before fleeing the October 2001 U.S.-led invasion, Hicks was arrested trying to cross into Pakistan and held at Guantanamo for six years. He was released to his homeland as part of his plea deal, which prohibits him from appealing his case or disclosing details of his experience for monetary gain.
Bahlul, a Yemeni like Hamdan, also was convicted at his uncontested 2008 trial of solicitation of murder in a recruiting video he produced for Al Qaeda. David Glazier, an international law professor at Loyola Law School, said legal scholars began speculating that the solicitation charge might be ruled beyond the commissions' jurisdiction after the same Washington appeals court that threw out material support as a legal charge canceled oral arguments in the Bahlul appeal just before it issued the Hamdan decision.
"There's been some discussion in the blogosphere about whether or not this means the end of conspiracy as well," said Glazier, who was a career Navy surface warfare officer before earning his law degree.
Only one of the seven Guantanamo convictions has involved crimes recognized as a violation of the international law of war: the murder, attempted murder and spying charges against Canadian Omar Ahmed Khadr, who was recently transferred to Canadian custody to serve out the six years left on his term.
Prosecutors at the military commissions have relied on material support and conspiracy to get convictions or plea bargains in the few completed cases, but Glazier argues that those "inchoate offenses" aren't considered war crimes under international law. Only after Congress passed the 2006 Military Commissions Act did the Guantanamo tribunal have jurisdiction to try suspects for those crimes, said the appeals court panel, which is made up entirely of Republican appointees.
J. Wells Dixon, senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has provided legal representation to hundreds of the nearly 800 men detained at Guantanamo since 2002, predicted that "conspiracy is the next military commissions charge on the chopping block."
"The Hamdan decision is significant because it is an illustration of the inherent problems in creating a second-rate system of justice that we make up as we go along," he said of the commissions, the original version of which was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2006, prompting a hurried redo, the Military Commissions Act, three months later.
Five "high-value detainees" facing death penalty trials for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been in the Guantanamo courtroom this week, bringing pretrial motions and theatrics to the forum.
In the first prosecution on charges widely accepted as war crimes, Army Col. James Pohl, the presiding judge, has been inundated with peripheral considerations, such as whether self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed should be allowed to wear a camouflage hunter's vest in the courtroom to project a warrior image.
Pohl has also had to rule on whether mold and rodent infestation at the defense attorneys work space on the remote base compromises their ability to prepare for trial, and whether any mention of mistreatment during CIA interrogations risks revealing national security secrets.
"Regardless of the underlying conduct and the quality of evidence the government presents at trial, there is no certainty that those convictions will stand" federal civilian court review, Dixon said. "For the Obama administration to continue to pursue military commissions charges is a real gamble."
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Photo: Artist's sketch shows alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, right, speaking with a member of his legal team during a hearing at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Credit: Janet Hamlin