GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba — 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. On Thursday, he was sentenced to five and a half years. He is eligible for release in five months.
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.
The judge scheduled a sentencing hearing for Wednesday afternoon. Hamdan faces a maximum penalty of life in prison but could have been held indefinitely as an “enemy combatant” even had he been acquitted on all charges. Sentencing could take two days.
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, listening through headphones to the English-Arabic interpreter. He 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, while Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the military would now move forward with trying 20 other Guantanamo detainees facing war crimes charges.
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain said he welcomed the verdict and that the process of bringing terrorists to justice had been too long delayed. Democratic candidate Barack Obama did not issue an immediate reaction.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the tribunal process 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 in a statement.
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 he was cleared of on Wednesday — two counts of conspiring with al Qaeda to attack civilians, destroy property, 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 on Wednesday of five counts 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 11-page verdict form was so complicated that the judge called for a yellow highlighter pen and marked the portions the jury president was to read. Jurors were allowed to strike some of the language in the charges, so some specifics of the verdict were not immediately clear.
The rules allow four levels of appeal, first to the Pentagon appointee overseeing the Guantanamo tribunals. She can overturn convictions and shorten the sentence but cannot add convictions or lengthen the sentence.
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.