The first Guantanamo Bay war crimes trial, of Osama bin Laden's former driver, can start next week, a federal judge ruled on Thursday, refusing to intervene in the military process backed by President George W. Bush and Congress.
U.S. District Judge James Robertson rejected a request from attorneys for Salim Hamdan, who drove for the al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan, to stop his trial while he challenges the military tribunal system.
Robertson heard more than two hours of arguments from Hamdan's lawyers and the Justice Department over whether the trial should be delayed. It is due to start on July 21.
Hamdan, a Yemeni, would be the first prisoner tried in the U.S. war crimes court at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba. There are about 265 detainees at base's prison camp, which was set up in January 2002 to hold terrorism suspects captured after the Sept. 11 attacks by al Qaeda in 2001.
Most have been held for years without being charged and many have complained of abuse.
Hamdan's attorneys said a landmark Supreme Court ruling last month made clear the detainees are entitled to fundamental constitutional rights.
"Guantanamo once was a constitution-free zone. It no longer is," Georgetown University law professor Neal Katyal, one of the lawyers for Hamdan, said in arguing for a delay.
But the judge sided with the arguments by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John O'Quinn, who said a 2006 law backed by Bush allows such challenges only after a trial takes place.
The Guantanamo trials are the first U.S. war crimes tribunals since World War Two. They were set up to try non-American captives whom the Bush administration considers "enemy combatants" not entitled to the legal protections granted to soldiers and civilians.
Human rights groups have criticized the Guantanamo prison and trial system as inherently unfair.
"We're disappointed in the court's decision but we look forward to, in the military commissions process, defending Mr. Hamdan," said Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, a military defense lawyer.
"He's a driver and a mechanic, not a member of al Qaeda and not guilty of materially supporting terrorism."
Mizer said Hamdan's trial was "not going to be full, open and fair as the government has alleged."
"There are fundamental flaws in this system," he said.
Army Col. Lawrence Morris, chief prosecutor of the Guantanamo tribunals, said he was pleased with the ruling and that it could mean more prisoners charged more quickly.
"We had planned to continue forward in any event. Obviously it gives us more confidence to do so," Morris told reporters.
Robertson noted the law authorizing the tribunals allows a prisoner to go to the U.S. Court of Appeals after his trial at the base. He also cited a recent ruling by the appeals court that another Guantanamo prisoner cannot bring an appeal until after his military tribunal trial has taken place.
Spokesman Erik Ablin said the Justice Department was pleased with the decision and that the government looks forward to presenting its case against Hamdan.
Thursday's ruling was the latest in Hamdan's lawyers' challenge to the tribunal system that Bush created after the Sept. 11 attacks. Robertson and then the Supreme Court ruled for Hamdan in 2006, but Bush got the Republican-led Congress to adopt the 2006 legislation establishing the current system.