Guantanamo jurors shown graphic film on Al Qaeda
Jurors hearing the first war crimes case against a Guantanamo prisoner watched a graphic 90-minute film chronicling the history of Al Qaeda on Monday, which included footage of mangled corpses in the rubble of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Kenya.
The disturbing images, including some not previously released by U.S. authorities, were part of a film produced and narrated by a prosecution witness under contract with the tribunal hierarchy, the Office of Military Commissions.
The film was written, produced and narrated by Evan F. Kohlmann, who described himself as an international terrorism consultant who has conducted research for government agencies in the U.S. and several Western countries.
Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred, the judge presiding over the trial of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden, cautioned the jurors that the film was being shown to provide an understanding of Al Qaeda operations, and that Hamdan was “not alleged to have been involved in any of these attacks.”
Most of the film, “The Al Qaeda Plan,” involved propaganda videos from Al Qaeda’s media wing, As Sahab, and much of the footage had been filmed and broadcast after Hamdan was arrested in Afghanistan in November 2001.
The film was said to be modeled after “The Nazi Plan,” produced for the Nuremberg trials of the late 1940s.
Allred initially ruled against allowing the government to show the last of seven segments, about the Sept. 11 attacks. He agreed with defense objections that it was “more prejudicial than probative.”
Allred told prosecutor Clay Trivett, a Defense Department civilian lawyer, that he didn’t want to expose the six-member military jury to the hysteria depicted in the final scenes.
“The planes crashing into the towers and the people screaming doesn’t prove anything,” Allred told the prosecutor.
But the judge changed his mind after images of charred, mutilated bodies were shown in a segment about the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa and an Al Qaeda propaganda film about the 2000 attack on the destroyer Cole displayed repeated computer-generated explosions over the hull of the ship.
In a reversal that defense lawyers said was grounds for appeal, Allred decided to let the prosecution play the 26-minute segment because “it’s not any more prejudicial” than what jurors had already seen.
Hamdan’s defense lawyer, Charles Swift, objected to the video being shown, contending it was “extraordinarily prejudicial.”
He accused the prosecution of “trying to terrorize the members” of the jury.
The tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, conceded that the film stirred emotions.
“It is prejudicial, which is why we show it,” Morris said, saying the issue was one of balance. “I think people think prejudicial is somehow wrong.”
Kohlmann, who was rejected as an expert witness in the Jose Padilla terrorism trial, was paid $20,000 to produce the film.
A Georgetown University graduate who has a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Kohlmann told the court he founded his own terrorism consulting company as well as a nonprofit counter-terrorism research group called NEFA, for Nine-Eleven Finding Answers.
His work with U.S. agencies has primarily involved testifying at terrorism trials. He was paid $25,000 for his appearance Monday, on top of the cost of making the film.
Geoffrey Corn, a law professor and former judge advocate general, was called as an expert witness for the defense earlier in the day.
Speaking via video from Madrid, where he was on vacation, Corn told the court that the U.S. wasn’t technically at war with Al Qaeda when Hamdan was working as one of Bin Laden’s seven drivers in the months before Sept. 11.
It was only after the terrorist strikes on U.S. soil that Congress and the Bush administration took steps to allow U.S. troops to use deadly force against identified Al Qaeda members, rather than only when their lives were at risk.
Corn explained the elaborate rules of engagement that he said demonstrated whether an armed conflict existed between two forces.
The 20-year Army veteran is a former Pentagon point man on international law and national security issues involving the laws of war.
Corn testified that U.S. troops were authorized to use force without being in personal danger only after Sept. 11. Most of Hamdan’s assistance to Bin Laden took place before that, excluding it from the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
Corn, a law professor at South Texas College of Law, was not paid for his appearance because tribunal Convening Authority Susan J. Crawford “determined that he was not relevant,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, Hamdan’s military attorney.