Appeals court tosses conviction of former driver for bin Laden

A U.S. federal court on Tuesday reversed the 2008 conviction of a Yemeni man accused of being the personal driver of former al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. 

Members of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington overturned the decision of a U.S. military tribunal, arguing that Salim Hamdan's actions did not violate the war crimes standards that were in place at the time of his military trial four years ago.

“At the time, the international law of war did not proscribe material support for terrorism as a war crime,” Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the panel's majority opinion reversing the Hamdan conviction.

Hamdan was found guilty by a U.S. military tribunal of war crimes for providing "material support" to al Qaeda in his role as bin Laden's driver four years ago. 

He was captured in Afghanistan by U.S. forces in 2001 shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, and was the first terror suspect convicted by the U.S. military court at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. At the time of his capture, Hamdan was found with two SA-7 surface-to-air missiles en route to suspected Taliban strongholds in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. 

Hamdan's appeal of his case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2006 that the military tribunal system set up under the George W. Bush administration was unconstitutional.

As a result, Congress approved the Military Commissions Act that year, which enacted significant changes to the process by which suspected terrorists are tried by the United States. 

Under that legislation, Hamdan's material support via his involvement with bin Laden and al Qaeda would have constituted a war crime. 

But the appeals court ruled on Tuesday that Hamdan's conviction did not fall under the definition of a war crime set by the Military Commissions Act because his arrest took place before the legislation was in place.

"Because we read the Military Commissions Act not to retroactively punish new crimes, and because material support for terrorism was not a pre-existing war crime ... Hamdan's conviction for material support for terrorism cannot stand," Kavanaugh wrote. 

Hamdan had been held in U.S. custody at the Guantánamo Bay facility until Washington handed him over to Yemeni authorities in 2008. They subsequently released him in 2009.