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First Guantanamo War Crimes Trial Under Way

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- The first U.S. war crimes trial since World War II has begun at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, nearly seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks prompted the Bush administration's war on terrorism.

Osama bin Laden's former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, faces charges of conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism and could face life in prison if convicted by a jury of U.S. military officers.

"This military commission is assembled," Judge Keith Allred said after the potential jurors were sworn in.

The first trial before the controversial war crimes court started six-and-a-half years after the United States opened the prison camp in Cuba to jail suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from the battlefields of Afghanistan.

Prosecutors contend Hamdan, a Yemeni in his late 30s, was close to Al-Qaeda's inner circle and was en route to a battle zone with two surface-to-air missiles in his car when he was captured in November 2001 after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

Hamdan's lawyers say he is not a member of Al-Qaeda and was merely a driver and mechanic in bin Laden's motor pool who needed the $200 monthly salary.

Jury Of 13 U.S. Officers

Hamdan is being tried in a hilltop courthouse overlooking Guantanamo Bay by a jury selected from a pool of 13 U.S. military officers flown in from around the world. The panel must be comprised of at least five members.

Human rights advocates have complained about the conditions under which approximately 265 prisoners are held at the Guantanamo prison and about the legal system the Bush administration constructed after the Sept. 11 attacks to try those charged with crimes.

The Guantanamo naval base became a lightning rod for anger against and criticism of the United States as detainees, held for years without charge and denied the rights accorded to formal prisoners of war, complained of torture and abuse.

Only one case at Guantanamo has been resolved. Australian captive David Hicks pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorism in a deal that averted a trial and limited his sentence to nine months in prison.