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Bin Laden's driver describes treatment at Guantanamo

McClatchy Newspapers
by Carol Rosenberg
July 16, 2008

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — Haltingly, and at times sadly, Osama bin Laden's driver Tuesday offered an unusual peek inside his American detention, describing a six-year saga of interrogation, isolation and sexual humiliation from Afghanistan to the prison camps here.

"When I felt sick, I'd call an interrogator," said Salim Hamdan, 27, telling his war court judge about reward and punishment at this remote Navy base.

With the Yemeni's war crimes trial set to start next week, no jury was present. Instead Hamdan spent the day describing his treatment in his attorneys' bid to get trial judge Navy Capt. Keith Allred to exclude confessions they said were coerced from him.

They also want Allred to rule that Hamdan's virtual solitary confinement has impaired his ability to defend himself at trial.

The prison camps say they hold detainees humanely. They offer daily open-air exercise and say that captives kept in single-occupancy, cement-block cells shout to one another — meaning there is no solitary confinement at Guantanamo.

Prosecutors said in a court filing that Hamdan was disciplined 84 times at Guantanamo for violations ranging from throwing a cup of urine at guards to banging on his cell door. Defense lawyers found 15 of the violations were for trying to speak with other detainees — "through walls, through vents and in the recreation yard."

The Muslim father of two with a fourth-grade education looked at his lap and fidgeted on the witness stand when he was asked about an episode of a woman interrogator at Guantanamo touching his thigh and groin area.

"She behaved in an improper way," he said, whimpering. "She came very close with her whole body towards me. I couldn't do anything."

He grimaced, then said he was helpless to stop her because of nearby soldiers. So, he said, he cooperated with his interrogators.

It was the first time the Yemeni who challenged President Bush to the U.S. Supreme Court testified in four years of war court proceedings.

He described being force-fed, spending months in isolation without conversation with other Arab detainees and sleep deprivation.

An Army psychiatrist, a female colonel who examined him once, found him sane enough for trial. She diagnosed him with a "personality disorder."

A Pentagon-paid civilian psychiatrist, who has seen him 100 hours since 2005, says he is so emotionally impaired by his military detention that he at times is unresponsive to his lawyers.

"He feels dead inside," Dr. Emily Keram testified.

Hamdan's testimony was mostly somber, at times distracted and confused, although he complained of persistent translation problems.

Led by his attorney, retired Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, Hamdan described being shifted between prison camps and losing privileges — sometimes on allegations of misbehavior, but at other times ahead of military and FBI interrogations.

During one month of FBI interrogation, he said, guards rapped on the steel door of his Camp Delta cell every five to 10 minutes all night to wake him.

Defense lawyers this week discovered military records showing he was subjected to "Operation Sandman," a sleep deprivation program, for 50 days in 2003.

Hamdan, who appeared in traditional Yemeni attire, offered no Western dates for the various episodes but measured them in relation to the Muslim holy months of Ramadan he observed in detention.

For nearly a year, before a federal judge ordered his return to the general prison population, he said he was confined to a "cell within a cell" at Camp Echo — a special prison camp, which at the time had no windows.

"Camp Echo is like a graveyard. ... a tomb," he testified. "That's how it is."

The case prosecutor, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Stone, accused Hamdan of lying to interrogators.

A tape of his first interrogation after capture in Afghanistan shows the driver telling U.S. Special Forces that he was a Muslim charity worker, not a bin Laden employee.

Moreover, Stone said, he didn't tell an FBI interrogator of his allegations of abuse in Afghanistan.

Hamdan also described persistent back pain, and being refused medical treatment at times at Guantanamo — unless interrogators summoned a Navy Corpsman. The psychiatrist, Keram, said that and a forced-feeding episode to stop a hunger strike led to his distrust of medical personnel.

Earlier, she described his force-feeding episode this way: Military members in white coats strapped him down and snaked a tube through his nose to his stomach. They did not identify themselves. "Doctors, butchers, I couldn't tell the difference," she quoted him as saying.

The Pentagon says it provides war-on-terrorism prisoners with safe, humane detention comparable to its sailors and soldiers.

After his November 2001 capture in Afghanistan, he testified, he was airlifted to the Panjshir Valley. There, he said, he underwent battlefield interrogations with arms and legs bound, a soldier's boot on his shoulder to keep his head bowed and "a bag over my head."

Only later was he taken to military detention centers at Bagram, where he said he was left handcuffed in chilly isolation, then to a tent in Kandahar before his May 2002 transfer to this remote U.S. Navy base.

He is accused of conspiring with al-Qaida and providing material support for terror because he served as bin Laden's $200-a-month driver and occasional bodyguard. Conviction could carry life imprisonment.

Hamdan spoke nostalgically about the several weeks he spent in Guantanamo's showcase Camp 4 — a bunkhouse camp for several dozen of the most cooperative prisoners.

He said he was sent back to single-cell confinement after mouthing off to a guard, and calling him "stupid." The prosecutor said he stirred other detainees against the guard.

"You'd be able to share room with nine other people and live almost a normal life," Hamdan said. "You speak together, you pray together, you are exposed to the sun and the fresh air."

The military is holding the hearings in the same week that a federal court will decide whether to freeze the driver's trial to let his lawyers challenge the legality of the current commissions.

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