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Bin Laden's driver gets 5 1/2 years in prison

Washington, August 8, 2008

A jury of US military officers sentenced Osama bin Laden's driver on Thursday to just 5 1/2 years in prison -- most of which he has already served - in the first US war crimes tribunal since World War Two.

The same six jurors who convicted Yemeni prisoner Salim Hamdan of providing material support for terrorism delivered a sentence that was far short of the 30 years prosecutors had sought.

The defense saw it as a slap at the controversial tribunal system set up by the Bush administration to try foreign captives on terrorism charges outside the regular US civilian and military courts.

The judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, gave Hamdan credit for 61 months of the time he has been held at Guantanamo, so he could finish his sentence in five months -- shortly before the next US president takes office.

"After that, I don't know what happens," he told Hamdan. "I hope the day comes when you return to your wife and your daughters and your country," the judge said, adding "Inshallah," the Arabic for "God willing."    

Hamdan raised both hands high in the air and waved in a display of elation and victory as the guards led him out of the courtroom at the remote US naval base in Cuba.

But the Pentagon said Hamdan, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried by the tribunal system, would continue to be held as an "unlawful enemy combatant" after finishing his sentence.

Defense lawyers called the short sentence a stinging rebuke to a fatally flawed trial system that one of them, Joseph McMillan, said was "built by political ideologues who hoped the military would serve as their pawns."    

"It was all for show if Mr Hamdan does not go home in December. If he simply goes back to the same cell, why did we all come down here?" said Charles Swift, a retired navy lawyer first appointed to represent Hamdan five years ago.

"He needs to go home. This needs to end," Swift said.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that once Hamdan finished his sentence he would be eligible for an annual review process to determine whether he is eligible for release or transfer from Guantanamo.

Hamdan was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 after the US invasion that followed the Sept. 11 attacks and sent to Guantanamo in May 2002. The judge gave him credit for time served since July 1, 2003, the day he was declared eligible for trial.

His status changed on that day from battlefield detainee to pretrial detention, the judge said.

The Guantanamo tribunal on Wednesday convicted him of providing material support for terrorism by working as a driver and occasional armed bodyguard and weapons courier for bin Laden in Afghanistan from 1996 to November 2001. But it cleared him of more serious charges of joining al Qaeda's murderous conspiracies.

Hamdan apologized in his sentencing hearing for any pain his services to Al Qaeda caused its US victims. "I don't know what could be given or presented to these innocent people who were killed in the US," he said through an Arabic-English interpreter. "I personally present my apologies to them if anything what I did have caused them pain."

Swift, the defense lawyer, said Hamdan's cooperation with US intelligence services more than outweighed his culpability as a member of bin Laden's motor pool. He argued all along that Hamdan was an uneducated laborer who worked for the $200 monthly wages but did not share Al Qaeda's ideology and had no advance knowledge of its attacks.

Prosecutor John Murphy had asked for a sentence of 30 years to life, long enough that "it forecloses any possibility that he reestablishes his ties with terrorists."    

Though disappointed, prosecutors said the outcome validated the system and demonstrated the jurors' independence. "Military jurors are smart people," said one prosecutor, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Stone


Tags: Al Qaeda | Laden | driver | Hamdan |

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