GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - U.S. military jurors reached a verdict on Friday in the Guantanamo trial of Osama bin Laden’s accused media chief, who is accused of inciting murder and inspiring September 11 hijackers.
But the verdict will not be announced until Yemeni defendant Ali Hamza al Bahlul, who could face life in prison, is brought back into the courtroom on Monday, one day before the U.S. presidential election.
Moving prisoners from the detention center to the hilltop court at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is a laborious process and the judge, Air Force Col. Ron Gregory, wanted to give the guard staff the weekend off.
The jury of nine U.S. military officers deliberated about four hours before reaching their verdict on charges that Bahlul conspired with al Qaeda to attack civilians, solicited murder and gave material support for terrorism.
“You are a terrorist and a war criminal,” the prosecutor, Army Maj. Dan Cowhig, told Bahlul in closing arguments.
The Yemeni defendant and his U.S. military lawyer sat in silent protest throughout the trial but Bahlul’s earlier words to Guantanamo interrogators formed key evidence against him.
The interrogators testified that Bahlul scripted the videotaped wills of two September 11 hijackers who were his roommates in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1999.
“He whispers in the ear of Mohamed Atta and Ziad al Jarrah,” Cowhig said. “He motivated them to shred themselves and hundreds of others in the towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the fields of Pennsylvania.”
Bahlul boasted that bin Laden assigned him to make a recruiting video and was so pleased with it that he promoted him to media secretary, the interrogators testified.
Bahlul’s fingerprints were all over a stash of books that U.S. soldiers found in Afghanistan, including a journal filled with bin Laden’s dictation and a notebook full of production notes for the video titled “The Destruction of the American Destroyer USS Cole,” prosecution witnesses said.
The two-hour video catalogues Muslim humiliations around the world. A segment labeled “The Solution” celebrates the suicide bombers who drove a boat full of explosives into the USS Cole in 2000, killing 17 American sailors.
Cowhig called the video, which was released in early 2001 and shown to the Guantanamo jury, a recruiting tool for al Qaeda suicide bombers.
Bahlul is not accused of direct involvement in or advanced knowledge of any attacks. But prosecutors say he incited others to attack civilians through the release of his video on the Internet and DVDs.
“The exploitation of modern media and the exploitation of modern technology has made terrorism more effective but it has not made it new,” Cowhig said. “This is not a new kind of war. This is barbarity.”
Bahlul went into hiding with bin Laden shortly before the September 11 attacks, driving a minivan full of video gear and computers with a satellite uplink, interrogators testified.
Prosecution witnesses said Bahlul’s video was translated into several languages and cited admiringly in wiretapped conversations among terrorism suspects. Stacks of copies were found in a Pakistani guest house where alleged September 11 plotter Ramzi Binalshibh was captured in 2002, an FBI agent testified.
“If it is not the most popular al Qaeda video of all time it is among the top five,” terrorism consultant Evan Kohlmann testified.
Bahlul was not allowed to act as his own attorney in the court he once called a farce and the U.S. military lawyer he tried to fire honored his request not to put on any defense.
“If al Bahlul is a war criminal, then so are the prosecutors because apparently all it takes to commit a war crime is to show somebody that video,” the defense lawyer, Air Force Maj. David Frakt, said outside the courtroom.
Bahlul is one of about 255 suspected al Qaeda and Taliban captives held at Guantanamo, and only the second to face trial in the special tribunals created by the Bush administration to try foreign suspects on terrorism charges outside the regular civilian and military courts.
The Pentagon said on Friday it had sent two more prisoners home, one to Tajikistan and one to Kazakhstan. About 520 others had previously been released from Guantanamo.
Editing by Eric Beech