Hamdan is like most at Guantanamo
Osama bin Laden’s driver, who received only a 5 1/2 -year sentence, is not so different from the majority of the 265 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay: a low-level player without a proven record of terrorism.
Only a small group of recent arrivals from CIA custody -- including five alleged Sept. 11 plotters -- seem to fit the profile of hard-core militants who threaten America’s existence, men so dangerous that a special tribunal was needed to try them.
The U.S. military officers who served as jurors in the first trial clearly weren’t convinced that Bin Laden’s chauffeur was as dangerous as the prosecution contended, acquitting Salim Ahmed Hamdan of charges that he conspired with Al Qaeda and convicting him mainly of driving a car.
His startlingly light sentence Thursday makes him eligible for release by January.
The next cases involve other seemingly minor players. At most, they are accused of throwing grenades at U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan -- not acts such as genocide or the slaughter of civilians that most people associate with war crimes.
Military prosecutors argue that even low-level Taliban and Al Qaeda figures violated the rules of war by not wearing uniforms and not serving under any nation’s flag.
They rejected trying the Guantanamo prisoners before normal military or civilian courts, instead designing a special tribunal that keeps classified evidence secret to protect intelligence sources and techniques, and can choose to allow statements obtained using sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures or other harsh methods.
Many observers at Hamdan’s trial said that nothing about him suggested the government needed a special court to try him.
“If the government heard the jury’s message, it will not use a flawed war court to prosecute conduct that does not violate the laws of war,” Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union said Friday on this isolated U.S. military base in southeast Cuba.
Even some supporters of the military commission, as the special tribunal is called, felt the prosecution reached too far in Hamdan’s case.
“The lesson I hope the government learns from this case, among other things, is . . . don’t bring skimpy or weak charges of conspiracy,” Charles “Cully” Stimson, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for detainee affairs, told the Associated Press by e-mail.
If there was any satisfaction for proponents of the tribunal, it was that a long sentence for Hamdan was not a foregone conclusion -- although the military still reserves the right to hold him indefinitely.
But for those seeking atonement for the Sept. 11 attacks, there was none. They will probably have to wait for at least two more trials to unfold before that’s possible.
No trial date has been set for the five men charged in the 9/11 attacks. Self-described mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four co-defendants were arraigned in June, but no further hearings for the joint case are expected until next month at the earliest.
Meanwhile, there may be some fallout from the Hamdan trial as the Pentagon reflects on the verdicts and sentence.
“Mr. Hamdan is about to make a phone call home to Yemen,” said Harry H. Schneider Jr., one of his civilian attorneys. “And I think it will be a much easier one than one that some other folks have to make to D.C.”