By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
An al-Qaeda propagandist who promised endless war against the United States was sentenced to life in prison yesterday, after his conviction at Guantanamo Bay on 35 counts of solicitation to commit murder, providing material support for terrorism and conspiracy.
Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a 39-year-old Yemeni, was the second person to be convicted by a military jury. The sentence was a boost for the Bush administration after Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's driver, received a light sentence in August in the first war-crimes jury trial held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
"When will it be safe for this man to leave confinement?" said Army Maj. Daniel Cowhig, the lead prosecutor, speaking to nine jurors. "Never!"
The jury deliberated for four hours yesterday before convicting Bahlul and took less than an hour to hand up a life sentence.
The court was told that Bahlul, described by prosecutors as al-Qaeda's media chief, directed gory recruitment videos celebrating terrorist attacks and taped the final statements of two of the hijackers who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Bahlul sat with bin Laden that day to follow radio coverage of the attacks, prosecutors said.
Bahlul refused to defend himself at the week-long trial and instructed his military attorney to remain silent throughout the proceedings, an order that the lawyer said he followed with great reluctance.
Bahlul spoke for about 45 minutes before sentencing yesterday and submitted to the court a 60-line poem that celebrated the attacks on what he called the "infidels' trade towers."
"We will fight any government that governs America," Bahlul said. "We are the only ones on Earth who stand against you." Bahlul called the proceedings a legal farce but said he was upset that the trial didn't attract more media coverage.
Three men have been convicted in military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, two after jury trials and one, Australian David Hicks, after a guilty plea was entered. Hicks was sent home. There are about 255 prisoners at Guantanamo, and 17 of them are facing war crimes charges.
Critics of the military commissions system called the conviction yesterday a hollow victory for the government.
"In seven years we've managed to complete three trials: Hicks, Hamdan, and al Bahlul, or as I'd summarize it: a dupe, a driver, and a default," said former chief military prosecutor Col. Morris Davis in an e-mail. Morris, who quit after clashing with administration officials over how to proceed with cases, described Bahlul as a "default" because he didn't defend himself.
But Col. Lawrence Morris, the chief military prosecutor, said that the government was not responsible for someone's refusal to defend himself, and that the Bahlul trial was transparent and fair.
"I would love someone to tell me at what point something occurred here that offended their sense of justice," Morris said. "I would love some specific criticism from someone who paid attention to the trial."
It is unclear where Bahlul will serve his time. Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have promised, if elected president, to close the military prison at Guantanamo, although neither has laid out a plan to achieve what is likely to be a complex legal, diplomatic and logistical task.