August 6, 2008 / 2:18 PM / 9 years ago

Judge calls convicted bin Laden driver "small player"

5 Min Read

<p>Salim Hamdan, who has spent nearly four years at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is seen in this file photograph taken in Yemen in 2000.Neal Katyal/Handout</p>

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A military court on Wednesday convicted Osama bin Laden's driver of supporting terrorism but acquitted him on the more serious charge of conspiring with al Qaeda in the first U.S. war crimes trial since World War Two.

The trial of Yemeni captive Salim Hamdan at the remote U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba was the first full test of the controversial tribunal authorized by the Bush administration to try foreign captives on terrorism charges outside the regular U.S. court system.

Supporters of the military trial process, including the White House, said it had been vindicated by the split verdicts. Human rights and civil liberties groups, and military defense lawyers, condemned the process.

As the subsequent sentencing hearing began, the judge called Hamdan "a small player" and refused to let the government call an FBI agent to testify about retrieving bodies from the World Trade Center after the September 11 attacks.

The judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, said the testimony was irrelevant since Hamdan had been cleared of conspiring with al Qaeda to carry out any attacks.

While Hamdan was convicted on five counts of providing material support for terrorism, the judge said the charges duplicated each other and ordered that he be sentenced only for one count, which he summarized as "driving Mr. bin Laden around Afghanistan."

Hamdan still faces a maximum penalty of life in prison but could have been held indefinitely as an "enemy combatant" even if he had been acquitted on all charges.

Crying Into Hands

The six U.S. military jurors deliberated a little over eight hours before reaching their verdict on the Yemeni native, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 after the U.S. invasion that followed the September 11 attacks.

Hamdan, wearing a white turban and long white robe topped with a tan blazer, stood tensely in the courtroom beside his lawyers as the verdict was announced. He listened through headphones to the English-Arabic interpreter and raised his hands and wept into them as the guilty verdict was read.

In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Hamdan received a fair trial and the military tribunal had been shown to work. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the military would now move forward with trying 20 other Guantanamo detainees facing war crimes charges.

<p>Defendant Salim Hamdan attends his trial inside the war crimes courthouse at Camp Justice, the legal complex of the U.S. Military Commissions, at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in this photograph of a sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin, reviewed by the U.S. Military, July 22, 2008.Janet Hamlin/Pool</p>

Republican presidential hopeful John McCain welcomed the verdict and said the process of bringing terrorists to justice had been too long delayed.

Deeply Flawed

Democratic candidate Barack Obama said the fact it had taken so long since September 11 to get a guilty verdict for terrorism showed how flawed the U.S. government's legal approach was.

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The American Civil Liberties Union also said the tribunal was deeply flawed and a betrayal of American values. "From start to finish, this has been a monumental debacle of American justice," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero.

The jury heard two weeks of testimony, including that of 10 federal agents who interrogated Hamdan without warning him that his confessions would be used against him in a criminal trial.

It was the Bush administration's third attempt to try Hamdan, who won a Supreme Court victory that scrapped the first version of the Guantanamo court system in 2006. The charges were twice dropped and refiled.

The charges Hamdan was cleared of -- two counts of conspiring with al Qaeda to attack civilians, destroy property, and commit murder in violation of the laws of war -- were the only charges against him in the first prosecution attempt.

"The travesty of this verdict now is that had the case gone to trial in 2004 he would have been acquitted of all the charges," said Deputy Chief Defense Counsel Michael Berrigan.

Hamdan was convicted of providing material support for terrorism, specifically that his personal services to al Qaeda included driving and acting as a bodyguard for a man he knew to be the leader of an international terrorist organization.

"The Pentagon must be very proud of itself today," said John Wesley Hall, head of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "It convicted a truck driver of being guilty of driving a truck."

There are four levels of appeal, first to the Pentagon appointee overseeing the tribunals. After that, the case automatically goes to a special military appeals court. If he chooses, Hamdan could then appeal to the U.S. federal appeals court in Washington and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Additional reporting by Randall Mikkelsen in Washington; Editing by Michael Christie and Chris Wilson

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