Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bin Laden driver to seek leniency from jury

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba - Osama bin Laden's former driver is expected to ask the Pentagon jury that convicted him of a war crime to spare him from life in prison on Thursday, his defense lawyers said.

Salim Hamdan wiped tears from his face on Wednesday as the panel of six military officers delivered a split verdict at the first U.S. war crimes trial since World War II, declaring him guilty of aiding terrorism but acquitting him of conspiracy.

The tribunals' chief prosecutor, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, said the failure to convict Hamdan of both charges will factor into the sentence his team recommends Thursday inside the hilltop courthouse on this U.S. Navy base. Hamdan is eligible for a maximum life sentence.

"We of course have to prepare our sentence recommendation consistent with what the jury found," Morris said.

Deputy White House spokesman Tony Fratto applauded what he called "a fair trial" and said prosecutors will now proceed with other war crimes trials at the isolated U.S. military base in southeast Cuba. Prosecutors intend to try about 80 Guantanamo detainees for war crimes, including 19 already charged.

Tainted trial?
But defense lawyers said Hamdan's rights were denied by an unfair process, hastily patched together after Supreme Court rulings that previous tribunal systems violated U.S. and international law.

"History and world opinion will judge whether the government proved the system to be fair," Hamdan's lawyers said in a statement.

Hamdan, a Yemeni, did not testify before the jury during his trial, but defense attorney Harry Schneider said the prisoner planned to ask for leniency at the sentencing hearing in either live testimony or a written statement to the jurors.

Hamdan has been held at Guantanamo since May 2002. The military has not said where he would serve a sentence, but the commander of the detention center, Navy Rear Adm. David Thomas, said last week that convicted prisoners will be held apart from the general detainee population.

Limited rights
Under the military commission, Hamdan did not have all the rights normally accorded either by U.S. civilian or military courts. The judge allowed secret testimony and hearsay evidence. Hamdan was not judged by a jury of his peers and he received no Miranda warning about his rights.

Hamdan's attorneys said interrogations at the center of the government's case were tainted by coercive tactics, including sleep deprivation and solitary confinement.

All that is in contrast to the courts-martial used to prosecute American troops in Iraq and Vietnam, which accorded defendants more rights.

The five-man, one-woman jury convicted Hamdan on five counts of supporting terrorism, accepting the prosecution argument that Hamdan aided terrorism by becoming a member of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and serving as bin Laden's armed bodyguard and driver while knowing that the al-Qaida leader was plotting attacks against the U.S.

But he was found not guilty on three other counts alleging he knew that his work would be used for terrorism and that he provided surface-to-air missiles to al-Qaida.

He also was cleared of two charges of conspiracy alleging he was part of the al-Qaida effort to attack the United States — the most serious charges, according to deputy chief defense counsel Michael Berrigan.

Conviction charges came later
Berrigan noted the conspiracy charges were the only ones Hamdan originally faced when his case prompted the Supreme Court to halt the tribunals. Prosecutors added the new charges after the Bush administration rewrote the rules.

"The problem is the law was specifically written after the fact to target Mr. Hamdan," said Charles Swift, one of Hamdan's civilian lawyers.