Bin Laden’s driver found guilty in a split verdict
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – A jury of six U.S. military officers convicted Osama bin Laden’s former driver of supporting terrorism but cleared him of conspiracy Wednesday in the first war crimes trial at Guantanamo Bay.
The Pentagon-selected jury deliberated for about eight hours over three days before returning its split decision against Salim Hamdan, who held his head in his hands and wept when a Navy captain on the jury read the verdict.
The jury reconvened hours later for a sentencing hearing in the hilltop courtroom on this U.S. base in southeastern Cuba. Hamdan, who is from Yemen and is about 37, faces life behind bars, though it is unclear where he would serve his time.
Defense lawyers had feared a guilty verdict was inevitable in the first war-crimes trial since the aftermath of World War II, saying the tribunal system’s rules were designed to achieve convictions.
“I don’t know if the panel can render fair what has already happened,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, Hamdan’s Pentagon-appointed attorney, said as the jury deliberated.
But the Bush administration said Hamdan enjoyed a zealous defense and called the verdict fair.
The five-man, one-woman jury convicted Hamdan on five counts of supporting terrorism and found him not guilty on three others. He was cleared of two counts of conspiracy.
Jurors accepted the prosecution argument that Hamdan aided terrorism by serving as bin Laden’s armed bodyguard and driver in Afghanistan while knowing that his boss was plotting attacks against the U.S.
Hamdan’s attorneys said the judge allowed evidence that would not have been admitted by any civilian or military court in America, and that interrogations at the center of the government’s case were tainted by coercive tactics, including sleep deprivation and solitary confinement.
The Pentagon describes the proceedings as the first “contested” U.S. military war crimes trial since World War II. It considers last year’s plea agreement that sent Australian David Hicks home to serve a nine-month prison sentence a trial, although no defense was presented.
The war crimes trial differed from the courts-martial used to prosecute American troops in Iraq or Vietnam. Hamdan did not have all the rights normally accorded either by U.S. civilian or military courts. The judge of the military commission allowed secret testimony and hearsay evidence. Hamdan was not judged by a jury of his peers and he received no Miranda warning about his rights.
But a White House statement described it as a “fair trial” and Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, said the split verdict proved that.
“The fact that the jury did not find Hamdan guilty of all of the charges brought against him demonstrates that the jury weighed the evidence carefully,” McCain said.
But deputy chief defense counsel Michael Berrigan said the split verdict was due to the skill of his team, saying it won an acquittal on the most serious charges even when the system was stacked against them.
“They may not have hit a home run, but at least they hit a triple,” he said, adding: “The travesty of this is that Mr. Hamdan should have been acquitted of all charges.”
Deputy White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the conviction means prosecutors will proceed with 19 other cases.
“We look forward to other cases moving forward to trial,” he said in a statement.
The verdict will be appealed automatically to a special military appeals court in Washington. Hamdan can also appeal his conviction in U.S. civilian courts.
The military judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, ruled Hamdan would get five years of credit toward his sentence for the time he has served at Guantanamo Bay since the Pentagon decided to charge him.
Hamdan was captured at a roadblock in southern Afghanistan in November 2001 and taken to Guantanamo Bay in May 2002. His trial, delayed by years of legal challenges that reached the Supreme Court, was the first demonstration of the Bush administration’s system for prosecuting alleged terrorists.
The military accused him of transporting missiles for al-Qaida and helping bin Laden escape U.S. retribution following the Sept. 11 attacks by serving as his driver in Afghanistan. Defense attorneys said he was merely a low-level bin Laden employee, a minor member of a motor pool with a fourth-grade education who earned about $200 a month.
Army Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a former Guantanamo official who has since become critical of the legal process, mocked the decision to prosecute a driver as the tribunal’s first defendant.
“We can only trust that the next subjects … will include cooks, tailors, and cobblers without whose support terrorist leaders would be left unfed, unclothed, and unshod, and therefore rendered incapable of planning or executing their attacks,” Abraham said