Friday, August 08, 2008

Bin Laden Driver Sentenced to a Short Term

It was more like a party than a sentencing. From
Rejecting a prosecution request for a severe sentence, a panel of military officers sentenced the convicted former driver for Osama bin Laden to five and a half years in prison on Thursday. The sentence means that the first detainee convicted after a war crimes trial here could complete his punishment by the end of this year.

The military judge, Capt. Keith J. Allred of the Navy, had already said that he planned to give the driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, credit for at least the 61 months he has been held since being charged, out of more than six years in all. That would bring Mr. Hamdan to the end of his criminal sentence in five months. …

The sentence was far less than military prosecutors had sought. Through more than five years of proceedings, prosecutors had pursued a life sentence. Earlier in the day, faced with Mr. Hamdan’s acquittal on the most serious charge against him, the prosecutors recommended a sentence of at least 30 years and had said life might still be appropriate. …

“What ultimately happened, in spite of the system, was justice,” said Charles D. Swift, a former Navy lawyer who has forged a close relationship with Mr. Hamdan through more than five years of battles as his lawyer.

After just over an hour of deliberations on the sentence, the panel of six senior military officers returned to the windowless tribunal room with their sentence on the single war crimes charge on which they convicted him, providing material support to a terrorist organization.

After the president of the panel, the most senior officer, read the sentence, Mr. Hamdan rose at the defense table, collected himself and spoke. Referring to an apology he had made to victims of terrorism on Thursday morning in the same room, he began, “I would like to apologize one more time.” …

After the panel members filed out, Mr. Hamdan, who was captured in the Afghan war on Nov. 24, 2001, hugged Mr. Swift, who helped take his case to the Supreme Court. As he left the sparsely attended courtroom here, Mr. Hamdan, who at times has shown a mischievous sense of humor, raised his arms and said a good-natured, “Bye, bye everybody.”

During pretrial proceedings, Mr. Hamdan, a father of two daughters in Yemen, and the judge, a career Navy lawyer, had regularly exchanged smiles and, on occasion, chats. Before he left the bench, Judge Allred said a few parting words to the man he had gotten to know in a most unusual way.

“Mr. Hamdan,” Judge Allred said, “I hope the day comes that you are able to return to your wife and daughters and your country.”

“Inshallah,” Mr. Hamdan said in Arabic, before an interpreter gave the English translation of “God willing.”

“Inshallah,” Judge Allred responded. …

At the trial, the defense portrayed Mr. Hamdan as eager to work with his American captors, even helping in their hunt for Mr. bin Laden.

After the sentence, the lawyers were asked if it would be safe for Mr. Hamdan to return to his native Yemen. Charles Schmitz, a college professor who has worked for years as the defense team’s Arabic translator, said Mr. Swift had asked Mr. Hamdan that long ago.

Mr. Hamdan’s answer, Professor Schmitz said, was: “Look, you guys get me out of Gitmo. I’ll take care of Yemen.”

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