McClatchy Washington Bureau | 08/06/2008 | Guantanamo jury gives mixed verdict on Bin Laden's driver

McClatchy Washington Bureau | 08/06/2008 | Guantanamo jury gives mixed verdict on Bin Laden’s driver

By Carol Rosenberg | Miami Herald

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — A U.S. military jury on Wednesday convicted Osama bin Laden’s driver of providing material support for terror but found him not guilty of a more serious charge of conspiring with al Qaeda in a string of worldwide terror attacks.

Salim Hamdan, 37, stood and listened with head bowed to an Arabic translation as he became the first man convicted at trial in the first U.S. war crimes tribunal since World War II.

He said nothing but wiped his eyes with his head scarf.

Six senior military officers, led by a Navy captain, deliberated for a little more than eight hours across three days to announce the verdict at 10:16 a.m.

The evidence phase of the trial lasted two weeks and took testimony from 22 witnesses — two in secret, two on paper and two with their names never revealed publicly.

Next, the same jury will hear evidence and arguments to decide whether to give Hamdan the maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Arguments were slated to begin at 2 p.m. Wednesday before the captain, two colonels and three lieutenant colonels on the jury.

The trial judge, Capt. Keith Allred, told spectators he did not expect a sentencing decision by day’s end.

The conviction caps a four-year effort by attorneys for Hamdan to have him face traditional U.S. civilian or military courts and avoid the war crimes trials ordered by President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

In convicting on five of eight counts of material support for terror, the jury appeared to reject Hamdan’s argument that he was a mere driver, a $200-a-month civilian employee of a Saudi millionaire who happened to be Osama bin Laden.

Prosecutors called him a bodyguard, a key member of al Qaeda’s security detail whose job was to floor the accelerator and escape should enemies attack bin Laden’s motorcade.

But in finding Hamdan not guilty of two counts of conspiracy, the jury did not entirely accept the Pentagon’s theory that the father of two with a fourth-grade education was a key cog responsible for al Qaeda mayhem culminating with the 9/11 terror attacks.

Prosecutors argued that — even if he did not know in advance — Hamdan affirmatively chose not to walk away from bin Laden after the terror attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000 and on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

Prosecutors cast Hamdan as an al Qaeda insider who arrived in Afghanistan in 1996 and developed intimate access and knowledge of the al Qaeda infrastructure — from the media organization to the training camps to the compounds and farms that belonged to bin Laden.

Prosecutor John Murphy called him an “al Qaeda warrior.”

The jury cleared the driver of terror support charges that alleged Hamdan he committed a war crime by having two surface-to-air missiles in his car when U.S. allies captured him in southern Afghanistan in November 2001.

According to the military judge’s instructions, the jury would have had to conclude that the SA-7s were meant to attack civilians, wounded or captured combatants or troops performing religious or medical functions.

The Pentagon’s deputy defense counsel, Mike Berrigan, called the conviction ”a travesty.” He noted that when Hamdan was first charged, in 2004, before his lawyers challenged his case in the U.S. Supreme Court, there was no such war crime as “providing material support for terror.”

Hamdan was tried under the Military Commissions Act of 2006, enacted by Congress after the Supreme Court shut down the Bush administration’s first bid to try him.

During the trial, Pentagon prosecutors showed jurors a gory movie, The al Qaeda Plan, packed with bloodshed and carnage.

The Defense Department paid a consultant $20,000 to produce the film, modeled after one screened at the Nuremberg tribunals 60 years ago.

Defense lawyers derided the war court, called a military commission, as relying on federal agents’ interrogations conducted from Afghanistan to Guantánamo without notifying Hamdan that he might be prosecuted and without benefit of a lawyer even in his second year here.

”In no other court in this country would the evidence be admissible,” said retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, who called the trial “by no means transparent.”

Only after his charge sheet was signed did the Pentagon provide him with Swift as an attorney — assigned by the prosecution to negotiate a plea deal with Hamdan.

So rather than arrange the plea deal proposed by the Defense Department, Swift sued for Hamdan’s freedom in federal court.

By 2006, the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled unconstitutional an earlier format for these military commissions in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld.

Allred, the military judge, ruled on the eve of trial that Guantánamo detainees have no constitutional rights against self-incrimination.

Twenty other detainees among the 265 captives at Guantánamo face similar trials. Seven could face U.S. military execution if convicted. Hamdan’s trial was a test run of sorts.

Up next: Canadian detainee Omar Khadr, captured at age 15 in a firefight near Khost, Afghanistan, in which a U.S. Delta Force soldier, a trained medic, was killed by a grenade. His trial opens Oct. 8.

Later, the Pentagon plans to try five alleged architects of the 9/11 attacks, from plotters to financiers to trainers, and seek their execution if convicted. Their next court date is Sept. 11.

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