A military jury Thursday sentenced a Yemeni prisoner to 5 1/2 years in prison for having worked for Osama bin Laden, a surprising end to a case the government had touted as justice for the victims of Sept. 11.
Salim Ahmed Hamdan drew the 66-month sentence from six senior U.S. officers impaneled for his trial on charges of conspiracy and material support for terrorism.
The jury convicted him Wednesday on some of the elements of the material-support charge but acquitted him of the more serious conspiracy charge.
With at least five years and one month of time he has already served credited to his sentence, Hamdan should complete it by January. But that doesn’t mean he then would be freed. The Bush administration has vowed to keep all “enemy combatants” in custody for the duration of the war on terrorism.
Hamdan, relieved to know his fate after nearly seven years in U.S. custody, thanked the jurors for “what you have done for me” and apologized for having worked for Bin Laden.
“I wish you Godspeed, Mr. Hamdan,” said the military judge, Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred, who added that he hoped Hamdan could soon join his wife and two young daughters in Yemen.
“Inshallah,” Hamdan replied, using the Arabic word for “God willing” or “I hope so.”
The driver and bodyguard for the Al Qaeda leader was portrayed by the government as a trusted member of Bin Laden’s inner circle. Justice Department lawyer John Murphy urged jurors to sentence Hamdan to at least 30 years and argued that life might be the more secure option.
Murphy asked the jurors to hold Hamdan accountable for the crimes of Al Qaeda, noting that he had served the terror empire during some of its most heinous crimes.
“Take one second to think of the victims of Mr. Hamdan’s support of terrorism,” Murphy said in a closing argument that cast Hamdan as a committed extremist and included graphic images of terrorist attacks. “Your sentence will be their justice. Your work is our justice, and you shouldn’t flinch from it.”
The unexpectedly short sentence appeared to be a rebuke by the jurors of the much-maligned tribunal for trying terrorist suspects.
It was expected to intensify pressure on the Bush administration to revise its enemy combatants policy. It is also likely to spur Hamdan’s habeas corpus attorney to push the U.S. District Court in Washington to order Hamdan released once his sentence is completed.
One of Hamdan’s civilian lawyers, Joseph McMillan of the Seattle firm Perkins Coie LLP, said that pressure on the White House would mount. “We believe that the notion of fundamental fairness would be deeply offended” if the government continued to detain Hamdan beyond his sentence, McMillan told reporters.
“David Hicks got nine months. Then he was released. He wasn’t kept until the end of the war on terror,” said attorney Nancy Hollander, an activist with the John Adams Project, which provides pro bono representation for terrorism suspects.
Hicks, an Australian convicted of the same material-support charge, was freed last year after a plea bargain approved by the tribunal chief, Convening Authority Susan J. Crawford. The deal was seen as a favor to Australia’s prime minister at the time, John Howard, during a tough re-election campaign that he ultimately lost.
Hamdan, whose age is estimated to be between 38 and 40, read a statement to jurors in which he expressed remorse for his association with Bin Laden.
“I don’t know what could be given or presented to these innocent people who were killed in the U.S.,” he said, according to a courtroom translation from his native Arabic. “I personally present my apologies to them if anything what I did have caused them pain.”
Hamdan looked on as photographs were shown of his two daughters, now 7 and 9, in pigtails and denim overalls. The younger girl was born shortly after his arrest at an Afghan roadblock, and Hamdan has never met her.
The jurors also saw a four-minute video of Hamdan’s wife, Saboura, wearing an abaya and hijab that covered all but her eyes. She talked of the hardships of raising children without a husband or income and of depending on her brother for survival.
Hamdan’s devotion to his family, defense lawyer Charlie Swift said in his sentencing argument, should ensure that he never returns to extremism.
According to Swift, Hamdan continued working for Bin Laden because he was “caught between two fires” -- association with Al Qaeda’s violence and the threat of imprisonment for having traveled to Afghanistan.
“The absolute best change for him to rehabilitate is to reunite with that family,” Swift told the jurors. “It’s a safety factor. He won’t put them at risk again.”
Swift, a retired Navy officer who was first assigned to represent Hamdan five years ago and took his challenge of the tribunal to the U.S. Supreme Court and won, argued for a sentence of no more than 45 months.
“One of the things that makes us unique is we don’t sentence based on passion; we sentence based on law,” Swift said in his closing argument of the sentencing phase.
Allred had said he would credit Hamdan with at least five years of the nearly seven years he has been in U.S. custody. The military judge hadn’t yet decided how to account for the period between his Nov. 24, 2001, capture and the first government announcement of war crimes charges on July 1, 2003, nor had he ruled on a defense motion for triple or even quintuple credit for nearly a year in solitary confinement and treatment in contempt of a federal court order.
Why the jury came to its decision wasn’t clear. Tribunal votes and deliberations are secret and the chief prosecutor, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, has said that jurors will not be allowed to speak with the news media because they might be called for duty on future cases.
But legal sources familiar with secret defense testimony said that the information revealed, which they could not disclose, probably angered the jurors.
Two senior Army Special Forces officers told a closed session of the trial on July 31 of an “opportunity” Hamdan had offered them in Afghanistan in the first weeks after his capture. The chance was “squandered” by the government, a defense lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, said in his closing argument.
Some have speculated that Hamdan offered to disclose Bin Laden’s whereabouts or the location of the underground bunker Al Qaeda members were thought to have fled to during U.S. aerial bombardments in late 2001 and early 2002.
The government case against Hamdan was also based almost entirely on information the defendant gave willingly in interviews with at least 40 U.S. government interrogators during the first two years of his captivity. Swift said that information was of vital importance in intelligence circles but was ultimately used against the cooperative Hamdan.