By Jerry Markon and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 8, 2008
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Aug. 7 -- A former driver for Osama bin Laden was sentenced by a military jury Thursday to 5 1/2 years in prison for supporting terrorism, a far shorter term than demanded by government prosecutors. The judge gave Salim Ahmed Hamdan credit for five years and one month of his pretrial incarceration at Guantanamo Bay, making him eligible for release from custody in five months.
The sentence was a stunning rebuke to prosecutors who had insisted on a prison term of at least 30 years and portrayed Hamdan throughout the trial as a hardened al-Qaeda warrior. The jury of six military officers convicted him Wednesday of supporting al-Qaeda by driving and guarding bin Laden and ferrying weapons for the terror group, but he was acquitted of terror conspiracy.
Hamdan's trial by the first U.S. military commission since World War II was viewed as a test case of a system that the administration has been pushing, despite fierce opposition and repeated delays, since just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The result -- a mixed verdict and an extraordinarily light sentence -- could raise questions about the administration's strategy of taking high-profile terrorism trials out of civilian courts and bringing them before the military.
The jury's decision could also be used by the administration, however, to counter allegations that the tribunals are unfair because the rules give great latitude to prosecutors.
Although Hamdan by most accounts was a minor figure -- even the judge called him "a small player" -- the military commissions to come will try the alleged perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks and other terrorist acts. It is unclear what the decision might mean for other cases.
Navy Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the verdict and sentencing "clearly indicate the fairness of the process" and that the Defense Department respects the decisions.
It is uncertain what will happen to Hamdan when he finishes serving his time in January. Military prosecutors said during the trial that an acquittal would not change Hamdan's status as a prisoner. He was declared an enemy combatant by the military in a separate proceeding, and the administration has said it can hold such combatants until the campaign against terrorism is deemed over.
While the Bush administration could order him held, officials could also transfer him to the custody of his home country, Yemen, or release him outright. The administration has been hesitant to repatriate detainees to Yemen because of concerns about its lax handling of terrorism suspects.
After hearing his sentence, Hamdan thanked the jurors and repeated his apology for serving bin Laden. Jurors were aware of the judge's sentencing credit when they issued their sentence.
Earlier at the hearing, Hamdan had pleaded for a light sentence and apologized to U.S. victims of terrorist attacks. "It was a sorry or sad thing to see innocent people killed," he said, according to a transcript. "I personally present my apologies to them if anything I did has caused them pain."
He admitted that he kept working for the al-Qaeda leader even after he learned that bin Laden had planned terrorist attacks. But he said his only motive was supporting his family. The father of two, who has a fourth-grade education, said he needed a job and that bin Laden paid well.
Over time, his views of bin Laden changed, Hamdan said. His head bowed, he acknowledged that he knew bin Laden was behind the 1998 bombings of two U.S. Embassies in Africa and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in a harbor in Yemen.
"It was a big shock for me when someone who had treated you, or we had treated each other with respect and regard and cordially, and then you realize what they were up to," Hamdan said through an Arabic translator.
Still, he kept coming back to bin Laden. "I had no choice," he said.
Soon afterward, hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001 -- what Hamdan called "the incident here in the United States." He said he was captured in November 2001 after driving his wife to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Calling Hamdan "a hardened al-Qaeda member," Justice Department prosecutor John Murphy said: "Once you see your boss killing people, you leave. You get another job. "
Hamdan received a light sentence compared with those of others who have been convicted in U.S. courts of having connections to terrorism. Ali al-Timimi, a Muslim spiritual leader in Falls Church, received a life sentence in 2005 largely for inciting followers to train for jihad against the United States.
Edward B. MacMahon Jr., who represented Timimi at trial and defends detainees at Guantanamo, said the disparity highlights "rank injustice." "It says that we have two completely different justice systems that are beginning to mete out just obscenely different results," he said.
Charles Swift, an attorney for Hamdan, acknowledged that his client made "a series of bad decisions." But he urged the jurors to consider Hamdan's cooperation with U.S. interrogators and said Hamdan had only wanted to support his family. "Bin Laden paid 10 times what he could have earned" in another driving job, Swift said.
White reported from Washington.