(reuters) - The former chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals testified on Monday that the tribunals were tainted by political influence and evidence obtained through prisoner abuse.
Air Force Col. Moe Davis, who quit the war court last year, said political appointees and higher-ranking officers pushed prosecutors to file charges before trial rules were even written.
A supposedly impartial legal adviser demanded they pursue cases where the defendant "had blood on his hands" because those would excite the public more than mundane cases against document forgers and al Qaeda facilitators, Davis said.
He said the pressure ramped up after "high-value" prisoners with alleged ties to the September 11 plot were moved to Guantanamo from secret CIA custody shortly before the 2006 U.S. congressional elections and amid the ongoing U.S. presidential campaigns.
"There was that consistent theme that if we didn't get this thing rolling before the election it was going to implode," Davis testified in the courtroom at the remote Guantanamo naval base in Cuba.
"Once you got the victim families energized and the cases rolling, whoever won the White House would have difficulty stopping the proceeding."
Davis testified in a pretrial hearing for Osama bin Laden's driver, Yemeni prisoner Salim Hamdan. Defense lawyers asked the judge to throw out the charges on grounds that the tribunal process was too tainted to provide him a fair trial, and they summoned Davis to bolster their case.
That put Davis in the position of criticizing the court system he had recently championed and working to dismiss charges he himself had filed against Hamdan.
But when questioned by the new chief prosecutor, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, Davis said he thought the charges against Hamdan were ethical and valid. He had previously said publicly that he remains convinced Hamdan is guilty of conspiring with al Qaeda to harm Americans.
Davis' new role put a twist on U.S. efforts to try Hamdan, who filed the suit that prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down as illegal the initial Guantanamo war crimes system in 2006. The charges against him were twice dismissed and then refiled and the military hopes to begin his trial in late May.
Hamdan faces life in prison if convicted of conspiring with al Qaeda and providing material support for terrorism. He has said he never joined al Qaeda, had no advance knowledge of its attacks and took a job as bin Laden's driver because he needed the $200 monthly salary to support his family.
Prosecutors say he was a trusted al Qaeda member who helped bin Laden escape U.S. forces in Afghanistan and that he had two anti-aircraft rockets in his car when he was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001.
The Bush administration set up the widely criticized Guantanamo court to try suspected al Qaeda operatives outside the regular civilian and military courts. It cited national security concerns and said captives who are not part of any national army do not deserve the rights and protections granted to formal prisoners of war.
Three other prosecutors quit the Guantanamo court in 2004 and said they thought the process was rigged to convict.
Davis' strongest criticism was aimed at Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the legal adviser who was supposed to provide impartial advice to the trials' overseer.
He said Hartmann had effectively joined the prosecution team and "took micromanagement to the nanomanagment level." Davis said Hartmann tried to dictate which lawyer would try cases and overrode Davis' ban on filing charges that relied on evidence obtained through the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding.
The Pentagon plans to try as many as 80 of the 280 prisoners in Guantanamo on war crimes charges, and 14 cases are currently pending. Since the United States began sending foreign captives to Guantanamo in 2002, only one case has been resolved, that of Australian former prisoner David Hicks.
Hicks avoided trial by pleading guilty to providing material support for terrorism and served a nine-month sentence as part of a plea negotiated by a Pentagon appointee without the chief prosecutor's involvement.
Davis testified that he had "inherited" the Hicks case from a previous prosecutor and would not otherwise have charged him because he wanted to focus on cases serious enough to merit 20 years in prison. The Hicks case did not meet that test, he said.