GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba (Reuters) – Osama bin Laden’s former driver took the stand on Tuesday at the U.S. military war court where he faces trial next week and described isolation, sleep deprivation and sexual impropriety during nearly seven years of captivity.
It was the first time prisoner Salim Hamdan, who challenged President George W. Bush and won, testified before the war court at the remote U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Hamdan’s lawsuit led the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 to strike down the original military tribunal system created by Bush.
In Washington on Tuesday, the Justice Department urged a federal judge to allow the trial of Hamdan, a Yemeni in his late 30s, to go forward, opposing a request by Hamdan’s lawyers to halt it based on last month’s landmark Supreme Court ruling which extended some constitutional rights to the detainees.
If his trial goes ahead, it will be the first before the U.S. war court at the base, where prison camps were set up to hold terrorism suspects captured after the September 11 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants in 2001.
In pre-trial hearings this week, Hamdan’s lawyers are asking the court to exclude their client’s statements from trial due to “coercive” tactics of interrogators.
Hamdan took the stand wearing a traditional white headdress and white gown under a Western-style beige suit jacket. He appeared detached and somber.
His lawyer, Charles Swift, walked his client through his captivity from his capture in Afghanistan in November 2001, where he said he was beaten, to his years at Guantanamo where he reluctantly described how a female interrogator had touched him while soldiers stood nearby.
“She came very close with her whole body towards me,” Hamdan said through an interpreter, his eyes downcast at times.
Pressed by Swift for details, he said: “She touched me above the knee.” “Where?” Swift asked. “Did she touch your thigh?” “Yes,” he said, adding that he began answering her questions after she implied she was going to touch his groin.
A number of detainees have accused female interrogators of violating Muslim sexual taboos by touching them provocatively.
About 265 prisoners are currently held at Guantanamo and the war court has been heavily criticized by human and legal rights organizations.
In Canada, lawyers for the only western prisoner still held at Guantanamo, Canadian Omar Khadr, on Tuesday released secret video taken of Khadr during one interrogation.
The video was taken in February 2003 and shows Khadr, then 16, weeping and moaning. His lawyers said he suffered “torture and abuse” including sleep deprivation and threats of rape.
Hamdan, who has admitted driving for al Qaeda leader bin Laden, is charged with conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists. Prosecutors say he was a willing participant in al Qaeda while his lawyers argue he was a member of a motor pool who needed the $200 monthly salary.
Questioned by a prosecutor, Hamdan denied he had a close relationship with bin Laden or was a member of al Qaeda. Asked why his name was found on a list of alleged al Qaeda members, he said: “Any one person can write anything he wants … you can write the name of the American president, George Bush.”
On Monday, Hamdan’s lawyers said Guantanamo “confinement” records suggested Hamdan had been put into a sleep deprivation program during a 50-day period in the summer of 2003.
In court, Hamdan described how guards would pound on his cell door to awaken him the night before interrogations.
“You go back to sleep. The soldier comes back again within five to ten minutes,” he said. “All he wants to do is wake you up. He knocks on the door or causes some rackets or noise.”
In court documents, prosecutors said, “Hamdan’s allegations of mistreatment are false.”
A defense psychiatrist, Dr. Emily Keram, later testified that Hamdan has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression. She said the interrogation techniques used on him reminded her of those used at the “Hanoi Hilton,” where American prisoners of war were held during the Vietnam war.