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A U.S. federal court ruled Monday that Osama bin Laden’s driver was entitled to a legal hearing on whether he is a prisoner of war — a landmark opinion that could prevent military trials of alleged enemy combatants held at Guantanamo Bay. It was the first time a court has stalled hearings in the military commissions, resurrected from World War II and heavily criticized by lawyers and human rights groups. A competent tribunal should have evaluated whether Salim Ahmed Hamdan was a prisoner of war under the Geneva Conventions, and he should not be tried unless rules of the military commission are changed to conform to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Judge James Robertson of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., ordered in an opinion issued Monday. The order, issued 1,300 miles (2,000 kilometers) away from this remote outpost, was written on a note and passed to presiding officer Army Col. Peter E. Brownback, who issued an indefinite recess minutes after pretrial motions began Monday for Hamdan in Guantanamo. “The judge’s decision was designed to cover the case of Mr. Hamdan, but the spirit of it potentially could extend more broadly to perhaps everything that happens at Guantanamo Bay,” said Neal Katyal, Hamdan’s civilian defense attorney. Hamdan’s defense team said the 34-year-old from Yemen was “ecstatic.” The court ruled in favor of the habeas petition filed on behalf of Hamdan, and against the U.S. government’s contention that Hamdan and other detainees are not prisoners of war but enemy combatants, a classification affording fewer legal protections. Core points in the decision included Hamdan’s right to a tribunal that looked at whether he qualified as a prisoner of war — not just an enemy combatant — and his right to challenge all the evidence against him. He is only allowed to hear unclassified evidence against him. “Unless and until a competent tribunal determines that petitioner is not entitled to protections afforded prisoners of war under Article 4 of the Geneva Conventions … he may not be tried by military commission for the offenses with which he is charged,” Robertson said. The U.S. Justice Department said it would appeal. “We vigorously disagree with the court’s decision, and will seek an emergency stay of the ruling and immediately appeal,” Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said. He said the government stands behind President George W. Bush’s determination that the Geneva Conventions don’t apply to members of al-Qaida and said with the ruling, “the judge has put terrorism on the same legal footing as legitimate methods of waging war.” Most of the 550 prisoners at Guantanamo were classified as enemy combatants before they arrived the U.S. prison camp, and it was only after a Supreme Court decision in June that allowed them to challenge their detentions in federal court that the government established the Combatant Status Review Tribunals to evaluate their cases. Hamdan’s case went before the tribunals last month. More than 300 of the cases have gone before the three-member tribunals and only one person has been released. None of them are allowed attorneys for the proceedings, which the government calls administrative, and they are only allowed to hear portions of the evidence against them. “There is nothing in this record to suggest that a competent tribunal has determined that Hamdan is not a prisoner of war under the Geneva Conventions,” the court said in its decision. The court also said unless military commission rules are changed to conform to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Hamdan should not be tried by the commissions and should be moved from a prison wing for those awaiting trial to the general population. “This is a huge day for the Geneva Conventions and the rule of law,” said Wendy Patten, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch who came to observe Hamdan’s pretrial hearings. The government could choose to change the commission rules, scrap the system altogether and move to trials before established military courts martial, or change the tribunals so that detainees are evaluated to see if they meet prisoner of war criteria. It was doubtful Hamdan’s Dec. 7 trial would go ahead as scheduled. Hamdan says he earned a pittance driving the al-Qaida ringleader bin Laden. He is charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes, including attacking civilians, murder and terrorism. But he says he never supported terrorism and was not an al-Qaida member. The court said the U.S. government “has asserted a position starkly different from the positions and behavior of the United States in previous conflicts, one that can only weaken the United States’ own ability to demand application of the Geneva Conventions to Americans captured during armed conflicts.” Since U.S. President George W. Bush ordered the commissions, defense attorneys have said the rules are so vague 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. Hamdan’s military-appointed defense lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, also asked the commission Monday to reinstate two panel members and an alternate who were dismissed after challenges to their impartiality. Swift said he wouldn’t have made his challenge in August if he knew his client would be penalized by facing a smaller three-member commission. He was told of the court decision minutes after Brownback recessed the session. The habeas petitions of more than 60 Guantanamo Bay prisoners are pending in federal courts. The cases allege the men have been wrongly detained without due process. Some have been held at the outpost for nearly three years without charge or representation. Air Force Lt. Col. Sharon Shaffer, who represents accused al-Qaida paymaster Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi, said a habeas petition was also filed Monday in federal court in Washington, alleging her Sudanese client was tortured by U.S. troops starting after he was captured by Pakistani bounty hunters in December 2001, and that he also suffered abuse at Guantanamo. One of the allegations in the petition is that Hamdan was wrapped in the Israeli flag during interrogations at Guantanamo and was shown hardcore pornography. The petition also alleges U.S. troops had sex in front of him and female troops rubbed up against him. After a request nearly two months ago by The Associated Press, the U.S. military last week provided accounts of eight Guantanamo abuse cases mentioned in a congressional report, including one in which a female interrogator exposed her T-shirt, climbed on a detainee’s lap and began running her fingers through his hair. The military has maintained that detainees at Guantanamo Bay are treated humanely. “Obviously we’re hoping for injunctive relief in light of the court’s decision,” Shaffer said. “But we’re very happy.” Shaffer said she told al Qosi the news and he was elated. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed.

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