Jul 16, 2008

World - Detainee challenges Guantanamo

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba: Salim Hamdan moved slowly to the witness chair.
Once a driver for Osama bin Laden, Hamdan is scheduled next week to become the first detainee to go on trial at Guantánamo and the first person in decades to face an American war crimes trial.
Fluke and circumstance brought him, and not bin Laden, to Guantánamo to answer for Al Qaeda. So Hamdan, with his bad back and his deep brown eyes, took the stand Tuesday at a pretrial hearing and described the everyday details of life in Guantánamo.
His lawyers are asking a military judge to move him from what they call solitary confinement, claiming that he has been so driven to distraction by Guantánamo that he cannot focus on his case.
In a white head scarf and a beige jacket with sleeves that were too long, Hamdan delivered something of a travelogue of his six years here. "Camp Echo," he said at one point, "is like a graveyard where you place a dead person in a tomb."

At Camp 6, where he was also held, "you can only see the soldiers," he said. "And, of course, I was never able to see the sun."
Tuesday's hearing was part of a broad strategy by the team of military and civilian lawyers working for Hamdan. On Thursday, in Washington, they plan to ask a U.S. judge to stop the trial here from starting, asserting that the military commission system violates Hamdan's constitutional rights.
If the judge in Washington permits the military trials to begin, there will be many more scenes like the one Tuesday, a preview by Hamdan of the detainees' portrait of life at Guantánamo.
He was not sure when he had been moved into one or another of the half dozen camps here, or when he was transferred out. Time is not measured in the usual ways for the detainees. He often recalled his moves from camp to camp in relation to Ramadan, though it was not always obvious if he knew in what year the events had occurred.
But, as he presented them, some details were clear. He described the airplane trip to Guantánamo, during which he said he was blindfolded and tied down in a position that inflamed a back injury. "Such severe pains, I cannot really explain," he testified.
He described the time when, he said, a female interrogator sexually humiliated him. "She came very close with her whole body towards me," he said, looking down, seeming to catch his breath. "I couldn't do anything."
The detainees' cells are small, he said in answering questions from a retired military lawyer, Charles Swift, who has represented Hamdan for years in cases all the way to the Supreme Court. The possessions permitted are few, he said: a toothbrush, a blanket, a towel. They are sometimes taken away, he said.
He was less jovial than the last time he spoke in court, in April, when he had a bit of a debate with the military judge about the process. He is about 40, even though he is not certain of his birth date, and has a youthful face. He had the tentative gait of a man with back pain.
He described a Guantánamo that sometimes seems far from the orderly courtroom.
Alone month in and month out, he said, he briefly had the chance to live in Camp 4, detainees' favorite because it is the only place at Guantánamo where men are permitted to live communally, with group areas for meals and prayers.
"You share a room with other people, and have almost a normal life," he said. "You speak together. You pray together."
But soon, he said, there was "a problem" and he was back in a cell alone, in Camp 5, which looks like an American prison. He is there now, he said.
One prosecutor, Lieutenant Commander Timothy Stone, said the "problem" was that Hamdan had incited a disturbance.
Whatever the cause, the move was a source of sorrow for Hamdan. In Camp 4, he said, "I felt like I started to live again."
Swift asked Hamdan if the two had discussed his concerns. For a man facing a trial that could bring a life sentence, his answer showed how small the world is on the other side of the barbed wire.
His lawyers say Hamdan can barely discuss any subject other than his wish to get back to Camp 4.
"I always ask other lawyers, and I ask you," Hamdan said to Swift. "Why am I being placed in the fifth camp? If you can't do anything for me, I don't need you. Why are you my lawyer?"

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