GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) — A Guantanamo prisoner accused of being an al-Qaida military commander was getting his first day in court Wednesday since being captured and taken to the U.S. base more than seven years ago.
A military judge arraigned Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi on five war crimes charges, largely for allegedly organizing attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. He faces up to life in prison.
Hadi, who had a long grey beard and wore a white tunic and headdress, listened calmly as the charges were listed. He did not enter a plea during the half-hour session.
His only statement of any length was to request additional civilian lawyers "because of what's going on with Afghanistan and Iraq," a reference he did not explain, and because one of his military attorneys will be leaving the service later this year.
The charges against the 53-year-old Hadi, a native of Iraq, include denying quarter and treachery and are based on the legal theory that he was not a legitimate soldier and violated international laws of war as he plotted and carried out a series of deadly attacks until his capture in Turkey in October 2007.
Military lawyers appointed to represent Hadi, who settled in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and has a wife and children still there, say he was more Taliban soldier than terrorist and that at least some of his alleged conduct should be viewed as the legitimate defense of his adopted homeland during the U.S. invasion.
"We think the government is conflating al-Qaida and the Taliban," Army Lt. Col. Chris Callen said in an interview before the arraignment. "If he is a Taliban, than we think he is a lawful combatant."
Court documents show Hadi may have for a time reported to Mohammed Fazl, one of the five Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo recently traded by the U.S. for captured soldier Sgt. Bowe Berghdahl.
Lawyers for the Iraqi question both why he wasn't included in the swap and whether the timing of his arraignment is intended to deflect attention from a decision that has drawn intense criticism, with members of Congress seeking to make it harder for President Barack Obama to close the detention center.
"We sent five commanders home, let's charge somebody and show we are doing something," said Air Force Maj. Ben Stirk, one of his Pentagon-appointed defense lawyers.
His lawyers say Hadi scoffs at the suggestion that he was a commander of forces in Afghanistan and say that he fled Iraq initially because of his opposition to the policies of former Iraq President Saddam Hussein. "He does not hate Americans," said attorney Jennie Bailey.
Prosecutors have accused Hadi of organizing suicide and roadside bomb attacks that killed troops from at least eight different nations, including the U.S., Germany and Canada. They also say he assisted the Taliban with the destruction of the famed Buddha statues near Bamiyan, Afghanistan in March 2001.
The chief prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, portrayed the case as ideal for the military commission, a special tribunal for wartime offenses, because of the nature of the crimes and the way evidence has been gathered.
Since the detention center opened at the base in January 2002, eight prisoners have been convicted of war crimes. One of those cases was overturned by a civilian court and six came through plea bargains. Six others are facing trial, including the five men charged in the Sept. 11 attacks.
There are 149 prisoners still held at Guantanamo and none can be charged in civilian court because Congress has barred the transfer of any of them to U.S. soil for any reason, including prosecution.