GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Osama bin Laden's former driver can ask senior al-Qaida suspects imprisoned at Guantanamo for help in his war-crimes tribunal, a military judge said Wednesday, overruling concerns that any communication between the detainees could threaten national security.
Yemeni detainee Salim Ahmed Hamdan is boycotting his trial, saying the military process is fundamentally unfair. The judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, said he hopes Hamdan will reconsider if given some opportunity to gather material for his own defense.
"I want to try to persuade Mr. Hamdan to come back to trial," Allred said. "I sense this might make him feel he's doing something in his defense, that he's involved in the process."
Meanwhile, the judge tried to keep Hamdan's case on track to be the first of the Pentagon's terrorism prosecutions at Guantanamo, scheduling trial to begin on June 2 with or without the detainee's participation.
But the high-profile trial could be stalled despite the judge's best efforts. Hamdan remained in his prison cell Wednesday and his military defense attorneys, at Hamdan's request, also refused to participate in the hearing.
The spectacle puzzled the prosecutors: "I'm a little confused, are they still representing Mr. Hamdan?," Army prosecutor Lt. Col. William Britt said, raising a question nobody seemed to have an immediate answer for.
The defense has asked for "two-way communication" between Hamdan and the so-called "high-value" detainees who allegedly helped run al-Qaida before the U.S. military captured and brought them to Guantanamo. With greater access, they hope al-Qaida leaders will help prove Hamdan was merely a low-level bin Laden employee, not a hard-core terrorist.
Prosecutors have objected to any contacts with the notorious terror suspects, warning of security lapses and the possibility they might try to corrupt the tribunals.
"We are talking about the worst of the worst," said John Murphy, a civilian prosecutor from the Department of Justice. "We are worried about the highly classified information and the manipulation that these detainees could undertake to thwart this commission's process."
What the judge authorized Wednesday seemed sure to disappoint both sides.
Hamdan's attorneys already submitted questions to several detainees but only Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, provided a response. U.S. intelligence agencies were reviewing the note before releasing it to the defense, according to Hamdan's lead counsel, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer.
The defense said more open, "two-way" communication might persuade top suspects to more openly support Hamdan's position. Instead, the judge said Hamdan's personal appeals to the other detainees will be limited to his signature on requests drafted by the government. Any response would then be vetted by the government before it can been seen by the defense.
Hamdan, 37, was captured at a roadblock in southern Afghanistan in November 2001, allegedly with two surface-to-air missiles in the car. He faces up to life in prison if the tribunal convicts him of conspiracy and supporting terrorism.
He has declared he will no longer participate in the proceedings despite entreaties from the judge to reconsider. Three other alleged al-Qaida operatives also indicated they will boycott their Guantanamo trials.
The military says it plans to prosecute about 80 of the roughly 275 men held at Guantanamo on suspicion of terrorism or links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. So far only detainee has been convicted — David Hicks, who served a nine-month prison sentence in his native Australia under a plea deal.