A U.S. military jury at Guantanamo Bay has convicted Osama Bin Laden's former driver of providing material support to terrorism, but acquitted him on a charge of conspiracy, which alleged he was a key member of the Al-Qaida terrorist network. Still, he could face life in prison as the military trial moves into its sentencing phase. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
In this first Guantanamo case to go to trial, the six military officers split their verdict on the charges against Salim Hamdan, who the prosecution portrayed as a member of Bin Laden's inner circle and the defense claimed was a poor man who took a job as a driver in order to feed his family.
The 37-year-old who is reported to have only four years of schooling was found guilty, among other things, of transporting two surface-to-air missiles in the trunk of the car he was driving when he was captured in Afghanistan. That was during the U.S.-led invasion that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001. He was transferred to Guantanamo about six months later.
The verdict was delivered after eight hours of deliberation over three days at a multi-million-dollar legal complex built earlier this year on the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo, not far from the detention center where Hamdan and hundreds of other alleged terrorists are held.
The U.S. military lawyers appointed to defend Hamdan claim he was abused while in custody, and that he cooperated with his interrogators. The Associated Press reports from Guantanamo that Hamdan put his head in his hands and wept as the verdict was read.
The military commissions process has been controversial since it was created by the U.S. Congress four years ago, and the original structure was struck down by the Supreme Court. It is the first such process the United States has conducted since World War II, and it is designed, in part, to ensure that U.S. military secrets are not revealed in the course of the trials.
While the Hamdan jury was deliberating, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said officials were pleased with how the two-week trial had been handled.
"We think that you've seen a fair and transparent process in which journalists were on hand, allowed to see the process, in which the defendant was offered a vigorous defense by his counsel, in which the prosecutor was able to make his case," Morrell said. "It was a good first effort, or so it seems at this point. And we hope it is the beginning of at least 20 additional trials that will hopefully take place sooner than later down there."
A White House statement Wednesday said the Hamdan trial was "fair" and said the military commissions process is "fair and appropriate." Human rights groups have a sharply different view.
"I don't think there's any way you could characterize it as a fair and open process," said
Stacy Sullivan of Human Rights Watch. Sullivan is just back from Guantanamo, where she and other activists were able to observe the Hamdan trial.
"I think the verdict in this trial was in before the trial even started," she said. "The military commissions lack such fundamental due process guarantees that we don't think that Hamdan ever actually had a chance to have a fair trial."
Sullivan says the court's security officer blocked observers from hearing much of the key evidence because the U.S. military classified it as secret, including some of the interrogation methods used on Hamdan.
Once the sentence is imposed, Hamdan can appeal the verdict to another military panel, and then to a U.S. civilian court. But whatever the sentence, Hamdan faces another obstacle to ever being released. A separate military process has determined that he is an "enemy combatant," and he would have to convince an annual review board that he is no longer a danger to the United States in order to become eligible for release.
About 265 alleged terrorists are in the same situation at Guantanamo. The Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell, says a hundred or so may be released through the annual review process, and about 20 will be tried in military commissions. But he says the rest may be held for an indefinite period without being charged or tried.
"There is still a significant population within Guantanamo who will likely never be released because of the threat they pose to the world, for that matter," Morrell said.
The Pentagon says it either cannot get sufficient evidence against those detainees, or the evidence it has is so sensitive it cannot even be presented in secret to a military commission. Stacy Sullivan at Human Rights Watch rejects those arguments.
"If somebody is too dangerous to release, I don't think it should be too hard to find out why, gather information and build a case against them and charge them," Sullivan said. "We're not a country that holds people indefinitely without charge. It so fundamentally opposes American values."
Like other human rights groups, Human Rights Watch says all the detainees at Guantanamo should be either formally charged or released, and if they are charged they should be tried in regular U.S. civilian or military courts rather than the specially-created military commissions.