August 6, 2008

Bin Laden’s Driver Convicted

A U.S. military jury Wednesday convicted Osama bin Laden's driver of war crimes - making him the first war-on-terror captive convicted by contested tribunal at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The jury announced the verdict against Salim Hamdan at 10:16 a.m.

It cleared him of the more serious crime of conspiracy but convicted him of multiple counts of providing material support for terror.

Conviction can carry a maximum life imprisonment.

The six U.S. officers who convicted him will next deliberate on his sentence.

The jury of six officers got the case Monday after extensive closing arguments. They deliberated a total of 6 hours Monday and Tuesday.

Hamdan, 37, was captured in November 2001 in Afghanistan by allied U.S. troops. He had two surface-to-air missiles in his car when captured and has been held at Guantanamo since May 2002.

Attorneys presented the war crimes case and Hamdan's defense over the past two weeks. Conviction could carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The president of the jury, a Navy captain, led the six-member panel back into the deliberation room at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday behind a courtroom carved out of an abandoned air terminal. Besides the Navy captain, the panel includes two colonels and three lieutenant colonels from the Army, Air Force and Marines.

In his closing, case prosecutor John Murphy cast Hamdan as an al-Qaeda co-conspirator, saying he served as bin Laden's driver in Afghanistan from 1996 until Hamdan's capture. He accused the Yemeni of rising through the ranks to become a trusted bodyguard and key cog in the infrastructure of the international terror group.

"He is an al-Qaeda warrior," Murphy said Monday at closing, pointing a finger at the accused, who sat at the defense table in a traditional Yemeni skullcap, white robe and sports jacket atop his tan prison camp trousers.

Soon after deliberations began, the military disclosed, Hamdan was allowed a one-hour phone chat with his wife in their native Yemen. The Monday night call was his fourth call home in nearly seven years of U.S. detention.

Testimony at trial, based on interrogations of Hamdan, described him as overhearing bin Laden plot "operations," then opting not to quit his job after realizing the boss was responsible for the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Hamdan's military and civilian defense lawyers say the Pentagon has made a scapegoat of their client, prosecuting him in place of the still at-large bin Laden.

They also deride the war court, called a military commission, because Congress permits it to use evidence obtained from 18 months of interrogations of their client - from Afghanistan to Guantanamo - without the benefit of a warning against self-incrimination or getting an attorney.

Hamdan's charge sheet lists two counts of conspiracy and eight counts of providing material support for terrorism - from allegedly serving as a driver to allegedly serving as a bodyguard to allegedly trying to deliver surface-to-air missiles to the enemy.


Image Caption: Detainees upon arrival at Camp X-Ray, January 2002 (US Navy)