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Military / America's New War

American-born Taliban fighter jailed in Norfolk
By MATTHEW DOLAN, The Virginian-Pilot
© April 6, 2002

Armed guards block the road leading to the Norfolk Naval Station brig, where American-born Taliban fighter Yasser Esam Hamdi was moved Friday. Photo by Genevieve Ross / The Virginian-Pilot.

NORFOLK -- A military jail at Norfolk Naval Station became the home Friday for an American-born man captured in Afghanistan as U.S. officials continued to wrestle with his legal status.

On a sunny but brisk afternoon, Yasser Esam Hamdi, 22, arrived at 2:15 at the base's Chambers Field. He was placed in a green government minivan with tinted windows and driven down Hampton Boulevard by military police escort, a short ride from the airstrip to the base's brig, officials confirmed.

All day, access to the two-building compound ringed by barbed wire was blocked by armed guards and barricades on the entrance road.

Hamdi was seized by U.S. forces with fighters of the ruling Taliban militia and the al-Qaida terror network after a November prison uprising in the northern Afghan town of Mazar-e Sharif.

``Given the likelihood that Hamdi is an American citizen, it was deemed appropriate to move him to the United States,'' said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. ``As a captured enemy combatant, Hamdi remains in the control of the Department of Defense.''

Background coverage: American Taliban could face tribunal or federal trial

Yasser Esam Hamdi

Hamdi left the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, aboard a C-130 transport plane early Friday. His plane touched down at Dulles International Airport shortly after noon and took off again about 90 minutes later.

He had been at Guantanamo Bay since Feb. 11.

Officials did not explain why Hamdi was flown to Dulles and then moved to Norfolk.

No civilian criminal charges have been filed against Hamdi.

A Justice Department official said no decision has been made on how to handle Hamdi's legal status. Options include pursuing federal criminal charges or seeking a trial by military tribunal.

That decision is ``a long way off,'' said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters Friday that because Hamdi spoke English when he was captured, officials knew there was a possibility he might be American. Franks said the matter had not been resolved when Hamdi was transferred to Guantanamo Bay along with other prisoners captured in Afghanistan.

If federal charges are brought, Hamdi would be tried in one of the four U.S. District Courts in the Eastern District of Virginia -- Alexandria, Newport News, Norfolk or Richmond. Federal law mandates that anyone charged with a federal crime who is brought into the country from a foreign nation must be tried in the district where the plane touches down.

While Alexandria seems the likely court of choice, the Norfolk court could still be an option because Hamdi will be housed nearby at the naval base, officials said. It was unclear why the Norfolk brig was chosen rather than a military confinement facility closer to Alexandria. The Marine Corps, for example, has a brig at Quantico, roughly 30 miles from the Alexandria courthouse, though it is certified to hold prisoners for no more than 90 days at a time.

Though the Washington area is home to a variety of military bases, another defense official suggested that the brig at Norfolk Naval Station is the closest military facility to Alexandria with the kind of security arrangements needed for a prisoner like Hamdi. Holding him there would facilitate a transfer to Justice Department custody when the proper time for that comes, the official said.

One official said Navy leaders had been told to prepare for Hamdi's arrival in Norfolk but given no indication of how long he might be staying. The Norfolk brig can officially hold 145 prisoners.

``It's hardly state of the art,'' said Virginia Beach attorney Greg D. McCormack, who specializes in handling military cases. McCormack and another lawyer familiar with the facility described the brig's security as tight.

The brig, which opened in 1972 as the Naval Station Correctional Center, is located on an unsecured portion of the Norfolk base, well outside the gates and fencing that surround the rest of the base. Just off Ingersoll Road, the three-story facility sits northwest of Camp Allen Elementary School and is visible from Interstate 564.

In 1973, the brig had a riot in which a dozen prisoners reportedly took over sections of the jail.

The brig is certified to confine prisoners from all branches of the armed services and also operates a correctional custody unit, which can hold 20 male and 10 female prisoners. That unit is designed to provide training and regimentation to junior sailors and return them to their units to complete their enlistments.

According to a Navy Web site, the brig's staff includes three officers, 120 enlisted sailors and six civilian employees.

McCormack, the lawyer, said the facility has a solitary-confinement block with about six, single-occupancy cells. Prisoners facing the most-serious charges are confined in those windowless cells, he said.

Typically, prisoners awaiting military trials known as courts-martial and those convicted and sentenced to prison terms of less than 36 months are held in the Norfolk brig, McCormack said.

A defense official suggested that the military would have preferred to turn Hamdi over to federal marshals, but the Justice Department was not prepared to move forward with charges.

John Walker Lindh, a former Californian who was dubbed ``American Taliban,'' was captured at the same Afghan prison as Hamdi and awaits trial in Alexandria.

Lindh never was held at Guantanamo Bay. After being taken aboard a Navy ship in the Arabian Sea in November, he was flown Jan. 23 to Alexandria. He is charged with conspiring to murder Americans, providing support and services to foreign terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, and using firearms and destructive devices during crimes of violence.

Before deciding Hamdi's citizenship claims, Justice Department officials were reportedly researching whether he had ever sought dual citizenship or renounced his American citizenship.

Justice Department officials recently located a birth certificate backing up Hamdi's claim that he was born in Baton Rouge, La., in 1979, while his Saudi parents worked there. He went to Saudi Arabia with his parents while still a toddler, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said Thursday.

Clarke said she did not know when Hamdi initially told U.S. officials of his claim to American citizenship.

Staff Writers Dale Eisman, Tim McGlone and Dennis O'Brien, News Researcher Jake Hayes and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Matthew Dolan at mdolan@pilotonline.com or 446-2322.

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