August 7, 2008
Bin Laden’s Former Driver Guilty of Aiding Terrorism
From wire reports
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba
A panel of six U.S. military officers convicted a former driver for Osama bin Laden of one war crime on Wednesday but acquitted him of the other, completing the first military commission trial here and the first conducted by the United States since the end of World War II.
In a setback for the military prosecutors, the commission acquitted the former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, of a conspiracy charge, arguably the more serious of two charges he faced. At a trial that included references to the landmark Nuremberg war-crimes trials of Nazi leaders in the 1940s, Hamdan was convicted on a separate charge of providing material support for terrorism.
The split verdict gave both sides in the long debate over the procedures here grounds for their competing claims. Supporters said the system's fairness was illustrated by the careful verdict, while critics said the trial, which featured secret evidence and closed proceedings, demonstrated the injustice of the Bush administration's military commission system.
The conviction provides an indication of what to expect as dozens more Guantanamo prisoners go to court: shifting charges, secret testimony - and quick verdicts.
Hamdan held his head in his hands and wept Wednesday as the jury declared the Yemeni guilty of aiding terrorism.
Hamdan, who has said he is about 40, could be sentenced by the panel to anything from no imprisonment to a life term. The sentence is to be determined after a separate proceeding before the same panel, which began Wednesday afternoon, after the announcement of the verdict. At that hearing, the defense worked to portray Hamdan sympathetically as a man with few choices who felt "betrayed by bin Laden" when he learned about terrorist attacks.
The sentence is expected to be announced as soon as today. Its severity could provide an insight into the military panel's view of the case, which has been criticized because Hamdan was a minor figure in al-Qaida.
On Wednesday, the judge granted a defense request that Hamdan be credited for more than five years of pre-trial confinement since he was first charged in 2003. If the panel imposes a short sentence, lawyers said, the administration would be under increased pressure to justify continuing to hold a detainee who might already have completed his term after a conviction.
The Bush administration has long asserted that it could continue to hold detainees even if they were acquitted or given short sentences because they are designated enemy combatants who, according to the administration, can be held until the end of the war on terror.
The conviction of Hamdan, who was part of a select group of drivers and bodyguards for bin Laden until 2001, was a long-sought, if qualified, victory for the Bush administration, which has been working to begin military commission trials in Guantanamo Bay for nearly seven years.
The six senior military officers on the panel deliberated for eight hours over three days. Four votes in a secret ballot were required for conviction.
Critics have long contended that the military commission system does not meet American standards, partly because it allows hearsay evidence and evidence derived through coercive interrogation methods.
The verdict did not mute the critics. Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said the trial "revealed what is common knowledge - the military commissions are fatally flawed and do not adhere to major aspects of the rule of law."
But the military prosecutors said the verdict supported their contentions that Hamdan was a "career al-Qaida warrior" who was pledged to protect bin Laden from the mid-1990s until after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The chief military prosecutor, Army Col. Lawrence J. Morris , added that the verdict validated the system "as an extraordinarily fair, open, and just process that produces a reliable result."
Michael J. Berrigan, the deputy chief defense counsel for Guantanamo, said the defense was encouraged by the verdict. "For a team that was expected to strike out at every pitch," he said, "we at least hit a triple."
The panel rejected two specifications that would have supported a conviction for conspiracy. One asserted that Hamdan was part of the larger conspiracy with senior al-Qaida leaders and shared responsibility for terror attacks, including the 2001 terror attack.
The second conspiracy specification rejected by the panel asserted that Hamdan was part of a conspiracy to kill Americans in Afghanistan in 2001 with shoulder-fired missiles.
But the panel voted to convict Hamdan of five of eight specifications that made up the charge of providing material support for terrorism. The specifications included accusations that he drove bin Laden, served as his bodyguard, was a member of al-Qaida and knew its goals.
This story was compiled from reports by The New York Times and The Associated Press.
Salim Ahmed Hamdan's sentence could range from no imprisonment to a life term. Its severity could provide insight into the panel's view of the case of Osama bin Laden's former driver .
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