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Osama’s driver to be tried

world Updated: Jul 19, 2008 02:12 IST

Salim Hamdan is a small player with a big role.

A former driver for Osama bin Laden, he is about to become the first Guantanamo prisoner to be tried for war crimes in a major test of the US system for prosecuting alleged terrorists.

Hamdan is an unlikely candidate for the history books - a wiry Yemeni father of two with a fourth grade education who is not accused of a direct role in any terrorist attacks.

He is scheduled to go on trial Monday on charges of conspiracy and supporting terrorism before a jury of military officers in a specially built courtroom at a former air strip at the US Navy base in Cuba. A judge in Washington refused yesterday to order a halt to the proceedings.

That means Hamdan, who earned about USD 200 a month as Bin Laden's driver will be the first defendant in a US military war crimes trial since World War II. His case will be watched around the world, the subject of inevitable debate and future legal challenges.

His Pentagon-appointed lawyer, Navy Lt Cmdr Brian Mizer, will argue that the US has zeroed in on too small a target in Hamdan.

"He is a driver and a mechanic, not a member of al-Qaida," Mizer said yesterday.

So far the US has charged 20 Guantanamo prisoners, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks. One Guantanamo detainee, David Hicks, accepted a plea bargain in 2007, served nine months and is now free in his native Australia.

Military prosecutors agree Hamdan is a relatively minor figure, but they say that as a driver he helped carry weapons that were used on the battlefields of Afghanistan and helped bin Laden evade retribution after the September 11 attacks.