GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- A Guantanamo prisoner accused of being an al-Qaida commander who organized deadly attacks in Afghanistan had his first day in court Wednesday more than seven years after he was taken to this U.S. base.
Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi was arraigned before a military judge on five war crimes charges for a series of attacks that included using suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices to kill U.S. and allied forces. He faces up to life in prison.
The 53-year-old Iraqi prisoner, who had a long grey beard and wore a white tunic and headdress, listened calmly as the charges were listed during the half-hour session.
He did not enter a plea and his only statement of any length was to request a civilian lawyer to assist his military attorneys "because of what's going on with Afghanistan and Iraq," in a remark that appeared to be only partially captured by the Arabic interpreter.
Army Lt. Col. Chris Callen, one of his military attorneys, said later that Hadi follows the news closely and was expressing concern about recent turmoil in the two countries where he has family.
Callen also said Hadi is eager to see some progress in his case after so many years.
"Not that he really trusts the system or that he thinks he's going to get a fair shake or anything but he seemed to be very happy that it's moving forward," the lawyer said.
The charges include denying quarter and treachery and are based on the legal theory that he was not a legitimate soldier and that he violated international laws of war by directing fighters who employed such tactics as detonating bombs among civilians and firing on a medical helicopter that was retrieving casualties.
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. "The United States is committed to justice and accountability for those who violate with impunity those longstanding laws by which humankind has sought to limit the depravity and suffering of war."
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," Callen said 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.
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.
Hadi was captured in Turkey in October 2007 and held by the CIA before he was turned over to the military. His lawyers declined to say whether his treatment during his interrogation will be an issue in his case as it has been in other Guantanamo war crimes cases.
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.