Decision at Guantanamo

The Baltimore Sun

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - A military jury convicted Osama bin Laden's driver yesterday of providing material support to terrorism but acquitted him of the more serious charge of conspiracy.

Salim Hamdan quietly collapsed in tears at the defense table, where he had sat through three weeks of government testimony about his involvement with al-Qaida, mostly gleaned from at least 40 interrogations by U.S. federal agents.

The Navy captain presiding over the six-person jury slowly read out the verdict on each of 10 separate counts, announcing first that the 38-year-old Yemeni with a fourth-grade education was not guilty on both counts of conspiracy.

It wasn't clear whether Hamdan, dressed in a charcoal-gray jacket and traditional Yemeni head scarf, wept in disappointment or relief. Through nearly seven years of legal wrangling, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the initial war-crimes case against him, Hamdan has been apprised by his lawyers of the Bush administration's stated intent to keep all branded "enemy combatants" detained indefinitely, regardless of any acquittals at the tribunal here.

Defense lawyers noted that conspiracy was the only charge levied against Hamdan by the government in his initial 2004 indictment for war crimes - a case thrown out by the Supreme Court ruling that the tribunal was unconstitutional because it had been set up by President Bush without consultation with Congress.

The guilty verdicts on five of the eight counts of providing material support to terrorism appeared to heed the military judge's instructions on Monday that in the war theater of Afghanistan, a combatant attack on invading U.S. forces would not constitute a war crime, though it might be an illegal action prosecutable by domestic civilian courts. Prosecutors had argued that two SA-7 missiles found in Hamdan's possession when he was arrested could only have been intended for use against U.S. warplanes - the only air power involved in the Afghan conflict.

The jurors deliberated for less than eight hours over three days before announcing they had reached a verdict. It was unclear whether their decisions were unanimous: Military commissions, as the trials are called, require only a two-thirds majority for conviction.

Hamdan was arrested with the two surface-to-air missiles in a Toyota hatchback he said he borrowed to take his family to safety in Pakistan from the al-Qaida stronghold in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The jurors found him not guilty on all three of the material support counts related to his possession of those missiles.

Conviction on all of the allegations could have led to a life sentence. The verdict will be appealed automatically to a special military appeals court in Washington. Hamdan can then appeal to U.S. civilian courts as well.

The jury, made up entirely of senior officers, reconvened for a sentencing hearing in which psychologist Emily Keram testified that Hamdan was orphaned by the age of 10, has only a fourth-grade education and worked for bin Laden because he felt it was the only way to support his family.

Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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