GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A military jury on Wednesday convicted Osama bin Laden’s driver of supporting terrorism but acquitted him on more serious charges of conspiring with al Qaeda to wage murderous attacks, 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 military tribunal authorized by the Bush administration to try foreign captives on terrorism charges outside the regular U.S. court system.
Supporters of the trial by military commission, including the White House, said it had been vindicated by the split verdict. 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.”
Defense lawyers said the partial acquittal affirmed their faith in the military officers on the jury but did nothing to remedy fundamental flaws in a system designed to convict on all counts.
The chief Guantanamo prosecutor, Army. Col. Lawrence Morris, said the verdict showed Hamdan was an al Qaeda warrior whose role went far beyond simply being a driver and should not be equated with “somebody who sold a chicken to a terrorist.”
Hamdan, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 after the U.S. invasion that followed the September 11 attacks, wore a white turban and long white robe topped with a tan blazer as he stood tensely in the courtroom and listened through headphones to the English-Arabic interpreter who relayed the verdict. He raised his hands and wept quietly into them when he heard “guilty.”
His case will be reviewed by the Pentagon appointee overseeing the tribunals and then by a special military appeals court. Hamdan could then appeal to the U.S. federal appeals court in Washington and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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 move forward to try 20 other Guantanamo detainees facing war crimes charges, including five who could be executed if convicted of plotting the September 11 attacks.
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain welcomed the verdict and said the process of bringing terrorists to justice had been too long delayed. Democratic candidate Barack Obama said the long delay showed how flawed the U.S. government’s legal approach was.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the tribunal a betrayal of American values from start to finish and “a monumental debacle of American justice.”
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 personal services in support of terrorism, specifically driving, guarding and ferrying weapons 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.”
Additional reporting by Randall Mikkelsen in Washington; Editing by Tom Brown