Defenders of bin Laden’s driver relate experiences to Peninsula lawyers

PORT ANGELES — When Seattle attorney Harry Schneider sought a pro bono case, he wasn’t looking to go down in history.

Schneider, speaking to a group of about 50 at a meeting of Clallam-Jefferson County Pro Bono Lawyers and the Clallam County Bar Association on Friday, said that he hadn’t done a pro bono case in a long time when he found the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan.

Little did he know that deciding to take one pro bono case would consume about two years of his life and that of his co-worker, Joe McMillan, as they defended the man who was a driver for Osama bin Laden.

Hamdan, the first person in decades to face an American war crimes trial, was at the center of legal battles challenging the Bush administration’s Guantánamo policies, The New York Times said.

In June 2006, his case was central to a Supreme Court decision that repudiated the Bush administration’s plan to put Guantánamo detainees on trial before military commissions, ruling broadly that the commissions were unauthorized by federal statute and violated international law.

McMillan and Schneider were two of the civilians on the defense team for Hamdan.

Schneider commended attorneys at the luncheon, saying that just as he spent two years on the case, he knew many of them spent extra time on their own doing pro bono work.

“Some of the real heroes are the sole practitioners who take on cases like this,” Schneider said.

“That kind of commitment is in many ways more impressive than for us,” he added, saying that his firm — Perkins Coie in Seattle — has 700 attorneys and that he and McMillan were able to spend full time on the case.

“The real heroes are people like you who don’t have the resources we have,” Schneider said.

“Hats off to all the people who do the pro bono work on their own.”

Hamdan was making about $200 a month driving for bin Laden when U.S. troops went into Afghanistan in 2001 after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

As bin Laden’s coterie fled into Pakistan, Hamdan dropped off his family and then turned around to return the car — which was a “pool car” — when he was stopped by an Afghani roadblock, Schneider said.

He was then arrested by American soldiers and eventually taken to Guantánamo Bay where he was held until his after his trial in 2007.

Although Hamdan was held for more than a year without being charged, eventually he was charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism acts and providing material support for terrorism.

“The conspiracy charge is very serious,” McMillan said.

The prosecution said that Hamdan had vowed allegiance to bin Laden, that he carried a gun and that two surface-to-air missiles were found in his hatchback.

“From the beginning, he admitted that he was the driver for bin Laden, so it was almost a given that he would get the material support charge, but he always said he was there but wasn’t a part of al-Qaida,” Schneider said.

On Aug. 6, 2008, a military commission acquitted Hamdan of the conspiracy charge but convicted him of providing material support for terrorism.

Although the acts could have carried up to a life sentence, a military judge sentenced him to 66 months in prison with credit for time served — which left Hamdan about five months in custody.

“I’m not sure he believed — I’m not sure anyone believed — that he would actually get out then,” Schneider said.

He was released from the Guantánamo Bay detention center and transferred to Yemen, where he served the remaining month of his sentence.

He works there as a taxi driver, Schneider said.

________

Reporter Paige Dickerson can be reached at 360-417-3535 or at paige.dickerson@peninsuladaily news.com.

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