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Split Verdict For First U.S. Military Trial At Guantanamo

  • RFE/RL

An undated photo of Salim Hamdan

An undated photo of Salim Hamdan

WASHINGTON -- In the first trial of a terror suspect at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, a former driver for Osama bin Laden, Salim Hamdan, has been found guilty of providing material support to terrorism.

Hamdan wept as a Navy captain presiding over the jury read out the verdict in a courtroom on the U.S. naval base.

The six-member jury of military officers found Hamdan not guilty of a more serious charge of conspiracy to commit terrorism, but the native of Yemen still faces life in prison when he is sentenced.

He is the first terror suspect at Guantanamo Bay to be tried in the controversial military commission system created by President George W. Bush.

One of his defense lawyers, Mike Berrigan, stressed that Hamdan had been acquitted of not only conspiracy, the most serious charge, but also every other charge for which he was originally detained at Guantanamo.

"The real travesty of all of this is that the offenses for which Mr. Hamdan was found not guilty were the only offenses that he was charged with initially back in 2004. He was acquitted of all those," Berrigan said. "The only specifications he was convicted of are offenses that were added after the fact by the Military Commissions Act of 2006, long after he was confined here in Guantanamo Bay."

Critics of the secret tribunals argue that they are unconstitutional and make it impossible for a defendant to win a "not guilty" verdict. Supporters say the trials give terror suspects ample opportunity to defend themselves.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement criticizing the verdict, saying "a trial that depends on handicapping the defense can't possibly be fair."

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said in a statement that the Bush administration was "pleased that Hamdan had received a fair trial."

A Pentagon spokesman, Commander J.D. Gordon, agreed with that assessment. "Mr. Hamdan did receive a full and fair trial. He was convicted of material support to terrorism, five specifications out of eight that he was charged with. And, as we can see, the military commissions process is moving forward," Gordon said.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress could not strip the Guantanamo detainees of the right of habeas corpus -- the right to challenge the legality of their detention in federal court. But the ruling did not directly affect the Bush administration's system of military commissions like the one that tried Hamdan.

Hamdan was captured at a roadblock in southern Afghanistan in November, 2001, and has been held at Guantanamo since May, 2002.

The government accused him of transporting missiles for Al-Qaeda and aiding in bin Laden's escape from U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Defense attorneys argued that Hamdan was a low-level employee with no knowledge of operations.

Hamdan's attorneys also said the judge allowed evidence in the trial that would not have been admitted by any civilian or military U.S. court, and that interrogations at the center of the government's case were tainted by coercive tactics, including sleep deprivation and solitary confinement.

The alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is also being held at Guantanamo Bay, provided written testimony that Hamdan was an uneducated driver who had no status within Al-Qaeda and was not aware of any plots.

Mohammed is set to go on trial later this year along with four co-defendants and faces the death penalty if convicted.

The verdict and sentence in Hamdan's case will be reviewed by an official who oversees the military commission system, and then by a Court of Military Commission Review.

Hamdan also can appeal to the Court of Appeals of Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Supreme Court.

A Pentagon spokesman said 20 terror suspects are currently awaiting trial by military tribunal. Some 260 detainees remain at Guantanamo.
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