GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) – It was no coincidence the U.S. military jurors at Guantanamo timed the prison sentence they gave Osama bin Laden’s driver to end just before President Bush’s term does, legal analysts say.
The timing seems intended to give the next U.S. president who takes office on Jan. 20 a chance to override the Bush administration’s announcement that it will continue to hold convicted Yemeni captive Salim Hamdan as an “enemy combatant” in the war against terrorism after he finishes his sentence.
“My inference is that they concluded that this administration would not release Hamdan at the end of his sentence, but the next one might,” said David Glazier, a national security expert who teaches at Loyola Law School.
“I think Hamdan’s continued detention past the end of his sentence, although justifiable under the law of war, would be a political train wreck, and I think the panel made an effort to protect the U.S. from further international criticism.”
Both major U.S. presidential candidates have said they would close the detention camp at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
The six-member jury of military officers convicted Hamdan Wednesday of providing material support for terrorism by driving and guarding bin Laden in Afghanistan.
They rejected charges that he was part of a broad al Qaeda conspiracy to murder American civilians, one of the “worst of the worst.”
The verdict in the first U.S. war crimes tribunal since World War Two endorsed military defense lawyers’ position that Hamdan was a bit player who made the terrible decision to keep working for bin Laden because he needed the $200 monthly salary to support his family.
MILITARY PUSHING BACK
When jurors began deliberating his sentence, the only question they asked the judge was how much credit Hamdan would get for the time he has been held at Guantanamo. The judge said he would get a little over 61 months’ credit, and the jurors sentenced Hamdan to a 66-month term that runs out at the end of December.
The jurors did not publicly explain their reasons but given the nuance of their verdict, it seems unlikely that timing was a coincidence.
“For seven years, uniformed military officers have pushed back against the administration’s most extreme and unlawful detention and interrogation policies, only to be overruled by White House lawyers with little respect for the Constitution or Geneva Conventions,” said Ben Wizner, a lawyer who monitored the trial for the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We may never know what the commission members were thinking, but we saw what they did: they ensured that Mr. Hamdan’s fate will be determined by a future administration with more respect for the rule of law.”
Only one other prisoner has been convicted at Guantanamo, Australian David Hicks. He avoided trial by pleading guilty to providing material support for terrorism — the same charge Hamdan was convicted of. Hicks plea-bargained for a nine-month sentence and was allowed to leave Guantanamo before it ended, finishing it out in Australia.
“Holding Hamdan past the end of his (term) is only going to further inflame anti-American feelings in the Muslim world where the U.S. will clearly be perceived as continuing to discriminate on the basis of nationality or religion,” said Glazier, a former U.S. Navy officer.
U.S. citizens are exempt from imprisonment and trial at Guantanamo. All the captives from Western nations were released long ago except for Canadian Omar Khadr, who faces trial in October on charges of killing a U.S. soldier with a grenade. (Editing by Xavier Briand)