A military judge penalized U.S. prosecutors Tuesday by blocking their use of a May 2003 interrogation as they finished presenting evidence against Salim Hamdan, the first suspect to be tried on terrorism charges at Guantanamo Bay.
Judge Keith Allred, a U.S. Navy captain, said the government could not use statements made by Hamdan during his interrogation at Guantanamo as a penalty for not providing his defence team with potentially important documents until after the military trial had started.
Allred had already decided last week to ban evidence obtained from Hamdan by interrogators under "highly coercive" conditions in Afghanistan.
Hamdan underwent dozens of hours of interrogation from more than 40 U.S. agents, and documents have confirmed he was subjected to tactics including sleep deprivation and solitary confinement. Captives held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have also been tortured in some instances, according to the Red Cross, Amnesty International and the FBI.
Tuesday's ruling means the prosecution has precious few admissions from Hamdan, who has acknowledged he worked as al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's chauffeur, to use in its case.
Allred said he would reconsider the ruling Wednesday, when the defence is scheduled to begin presenting its evidence.
But the judge said he would only allow prosecutors to submit the interrogation if they can provide "clear and convincing evidence" the statements were not obtained through coercion.
The deputy chief defence counsel for the military tribunals, Michael Berrigan, said the ruling was a welcome response to the U.S. government's "inexcusable" delay in providing Hamdan's defence with records that provide new details about his more than six years of confinement at Guantanamo.
"It's gratifying to get this ruling, but it doesn't go far enough," Berrigan said.
Defence lawyers have been sifting through the prison records for material to support Hamdan's allegations that he was subjected to abuse including sexual humiliation. Such evidence could buttress their claims that he was coerced into making incriminating statements to authorities.
Hamdan was captured at a roadblock in Afghanistan in November 2001. At Bagram air base in Afghanistan, the judge found, Hamdan was kept in isolation 24 hours a day with his hands and feet restrained, and armed soldiers prompted him to talk by kneeing him in the back. His captors repeatedly tied him up, put a bag over his head and knocked him to the ground.
The former driver for bin Laden is charged with conspiracy and aiding terrorism. Authorities allege Hamdan delivered weapons for al-Qaeda and helped bin Laden evade U.S. retribution for the Sept. 11, 2001, airplane hijackings.
His lawyers say that he was a minor employee who accepted the chauffeur job because he needed the $200 a month salary and that he played no role in terrorism.
Hamdan faces life in prison if convicted, but he won't necessarily be freed if he's acquitted by the jury of six U.S. military personnel. The U.S. government has asserted it can continue to detain any foreigner it deems an "unlawful enemy combatant" until after it deems its so-called war on terrorism to be over.
New charges against inmate
Hamdan is the first to go on trial of about 265 current Guantanamo Bay prisoners, most of whom have spent up to six years behind bars without being charged. The U.S. says it intends to prosecute 80 other detainees, and on Monday the Pentagon announced it had charged inmate Abdul Ghani with attempted murder, material support for terrorism and conspiracy in relation to accusations he fired rockets and planted bombs aimed at U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.
Ghani is the 22nd Guantanamo captive to be charged with an offence. The others include Canadian Omar Khadr and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 hijackings.
The Pentagon also said Monday it had released three detainees — one to Afghanistan, one to the United Arab Emirates and one to Qatar. It said 65 more are eligible for transfer or release subject to talks on where they will go.
Only one detainee at the U.S. naval base has ever been convicted of an offence. Australian David Hicks pleaded guilty in 2007 to providing support for terrorism and was sent back to his home country to serve the remaining nine months of a seven-year sentence.