GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba, (AP) – A U.S. military jury sentenced Osama bin Laden’s driver Thursday to just 5 1/2 years in prison, a surprise rebuke to Pentagon prosecutors who portrayed him as a member of the al-Qaeda leader’s inner circle worthy of a life sentence.
Salim Hamdan, with credit for time served, will be eligible for release in less than five months, though U.S. authorities still insist they could hold him indefinitely without charge at Guantanamo.
The judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, called Hamdan a “small player,” and the jury apparently agreed, rejecting the recommendation of 30 years by prosecutors who said even a life sentence would be fitting in order to send an example to would-be terrorists.
“I hope the day comes that you return to your wife and daughters and your country, and you’re able to be a provider, a father and a husband in the best sense of all those terms,” Allred told Hamdan at the close of the hearing.
The prisoner, dressed in a charcoal sports coat and white robe, responded: “God willing.”
It was an anticlimactic finish to a case that had taken on a special prominence as the first Guantanamo war crimes trial. The Pentagon pushed forward with Hamdan’s prosecution despite repeated legal challenges that went to the Supreme Court in a 2006 case that struck down the previous rules for the tribunals, prompting Congress and President Bush to craft new ones.
The split verdict on the charges and the relatively lenient sentence appeared to strip away the urgency of the government’s plans to prosecute dozens of Guantanamo prisoners under special rules widely criticized as unfair.
The jury’s sentence now goes for mandatory review to a Pentagon official who can shorten it but not extend it. It remains unclear what will happen to Hamdan once his sentence is served, since the U.S. military has said it won’t release anyone who still represents a threat.
The decision was a “slap in the face” to the Bush administration and its detention policies, said David Remes, a Washington lawyer who represents 15 Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo.
“They chose to make this a test case. But they never imagined that it would result in such a stunning rebuff,” he said.
The chief defense counsel for the Guantanamo tribunals, Army Col. Steve David, said the government failed in its strategy to link Hamdan to the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The government attempted to inflame the emotions of the panel,” he said. “It didn’t work.”
“Asking for 30 years to life, not only was ill-advised and wholly inappropriate, but was also soundly rejected by the panel,” David said.
Allred said Hamdan, who is from Yemen, would likely be eligible for release through the same administrative review process as other Guantanamo prisoners.
Defense lawyers said Hamdan will have finished his sentence in four months and 22 days. “It was all for show if Mr. Hamdan does not go home in December,” said civilian defense attorney Charles Swift, who hugged Hamdan after the jurors left the courtroom.
Hamdan thanked the jurors for the sentence and repeated his apology for having served bin Laden.
“I would like to apologize one more time to all the members and I would like to thank you for what you have done for me,” he told the five-man, one-woman jury, all military officers picked by the Pentagon for the first U.S. war crimes trial in a half-century.
Hamdan waved both hands as he left the courtroom, saying “bye, bye” in English.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, said he could not speculate whether Hamdan would be released later this year or remain imprisoned as an “enemy combatant.”
“I can reassure you that the Defense Department is hard at work on this issue,” he said.
The military has not said where Hamdan will serve his sentence. His lawyers protested in court Thursday that Hamdan, as a convict, already had been moved to an empty wing of his prison at the isolated U.S. military base in southeast Cuba.
While being convicted of supporting terrorism, Hamdan was acquitted of providing missiles to al-Qaeda and knowing his work would be used for terrorism. He also was cleared of being part of al-Qaeda’s conspiracy to attack the United States — the most serious charges he faced.
“The decision showed what the jury thought Hamdan was worth,” Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo trials, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Referring to the decks of cards the U.S. military has distributed with images of most-wanted terrorists, Davis said: “Hamdan would be the two of clubs.”
Still, the sentence should give skeptics some pause, Davis said, by showing that military juries are independent and carefully evaluate evidence presented in the war crimes trials.
“There is a perception that trying people in front of the military was going to be a rubber-stamp process,” Davis said. “This shows they are conscientious, following instructions and are making rational decisions.”
Despite disappointment over the sentence, prosecutor John Murphy described the jury’s rejection of their recommendation as a “a vindication for the system.”
Hamdan admitted he drove bin Laden around Afghanistan at the time of the 2001 attacks, but said he took the job without knowing the al-Qaeda leader was a terrorist. It came as “a big shock,” he said, when he learned bin Laden was responsible for the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, where Hamdan is from.
Still, he kept the job, Hamdan said — he needed the money, and couldn’t go home.
“It’s true there are work opportunities in Yemen, but not at the level I needed after I got married and not to the level of ambitions that I had in my future,” said Hamdan, who has a fourth-grade education.
Reading a prepared statement in Arabic, he said he had a “relationship of respect” with bin Laden, as would any other driver in the al-Qaeda motor pool. Hamdan has said he drove mainly low-profile pickup trucks with tinted windows because his boss shunned the Toyota Land Cruisers favored by Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers.
At the time of his capture at a roadblock in Afghanistan in November 2001, Hamdan had two shoulder-launched missiles, but he said the car was borrowed and the rockets were not his. The jury found him innocent of carrying the missiles as part of a conspiracy to kill U.S. soldiers.
Hamdan expressed regret over the “innocent people” who died in the attacks in the United States, according to a Pentagon transcript. His apology couldn’t be heard by reporters because the sound was turned off during part of the proceedings to protect classified information.
“I personally present my apologies to them if anything that I did has caused them pain,” Hamdan said.
Murphy, a Justice Department prosecutor, had pressed for a stiff sentence.
“You have found him guilty of offenses that have made our world extremely unsafe and dangerous,” Murphy said. “The government asks you to deliver a sentence that will absolutely keep our society safe from him.”
The judge instructed jurors to consider the nearly seven years Hamdan has spent in confinement, and that he is the sole supporter of his wife and two children.
The guilty verdict will be appealed automatically to a special military court in Washington. Hamdan also can appeal to U.S. civilian courts, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court. Defense lawyers say Hamdan’s rights were denied by an unfair process, hastily patched together after the high court ruled that previous tribunal systems violated U.S. and international law.
“The problem is the law was specifically written after the fact to target Mr. Hamdan,” said Swift.
Deputy White House spokesman Tony Fratto on Wednesday disputed allegations of injustice, saying Hamdan had received a fair trial and that prosecutors will now press ahead with other war crimes trials. Prosecutors intend to try about 80 Guantanamo detainees, including 19 already charged.