- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) – A federal judge is considering whether to block the first Guantanamo Bay war crimes trial from beginning next week. If he does, it could throw another kink into the Bush administration’s legal strategy in the war on terrorism.

Salim Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden, is scheduled to go on trial Monday as the first defendant in a special military commission system set up to prosecute detainees at the Navy base in Cuba. Other detainees, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, are awaiting trials of their own.

But a Supreme Court ruling last month jeopardized those plans. The court ruled that detainees must be allowed to challenge their detention in civilian courts, a right that the Bush administration said for years did not exist.

Hamdan quickly asked a federal judge to delay his military commission trial, saying he must be allowed to challenge the legality of the system before he can be prosecuted. Otherwise, he says, he could be convicted in a process that is later revealed to be unconstitutional.

Furthermore, he says only enemy combatants can stand trial before a military commission. And since the Supreme Court says he has the right to challenge that label, Hamdan argues he cannot be prosecuted until that challenge plays out.

A military judge at Guantanamo Bay has already refused to delay the trial and the Justice Department is urging U.S. District Judge James Robertson not to get involved. Robertson scheduled a hearing Thursday in Washington to consider the matter.

Prosecuting suspected terrorists is a key part of the war on terrorism, the Justice Department said, and a necessary step toward closing the Guantanamo Bay prison.

“Putting the military commission proceedings on hold now would be contrary to these interests and hamper the government’s war efforts, not to mention constitute a significant intrusion into areas within the province of the executive branch,” government attorneys said.

Robertson may rule from the bench Thursday.

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