U.S. Could Continue Holding Bin Laden Driver

The man who served as a driver for Osama bin Laden was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison, but with credit for time served, he may be eligible for release by the end of the year.

NPR's John McChesney tells Steve Inskeep that despite the sentence given to Salim Hamdan by a U.S. military jury in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the government could continue holding him. But defense lawyers don't believe that will happen because it would cause international outrage, McChesney says.

"This guy has been tried, he's been given the sentence he's been given, and if the government tried to keep him past that 5 1/2 months, his defense team, which is very dedicated to him, would be all over them. And I don't think the administration wants to brook that kind of world reaction," McChesney says.

The sentence was a rebuke to prosecutors, who wanted a much longer prison term.

"They also got slapped down on the conspiracy charge, so they had a double defeat here in some ways," McChesney says.

The conspiracy charge was considered the more serious of the two charges. Hamdan was acquitted of that but was convicted of material support of terrorism or a terrorist organization, and then the jury came back with the light sentence.

In the courtroom, the defense team was jubilant.

"Charlie Swift, who has had this case for five years, and Mr. Hamdan embraced. Mr. Hamdan raised his arms and gave a victory signal. The judge — quite remarkably — said, 'I hope Mr. Hamdan you're soon able to join your family in Yemen.' And Mr. Hamdan said, 'inshallah' ['God willing'] and the judge answered him 'inshallah.' It was an amazingly emotional scene."

Reaction to the jury's decisions, and views of the legitimacy of the military commission system, vary widely, McChesney says.

Hamdan Played Role In Other Prisoners' Cases

Salim Hamdan i i

Salim Hamdan attends his trial inside the war crimes courthouse at Camp Justice, the legal complex of the U.S. Military Commissions, at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba, July 23, 2008. Janet Hamlin/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Janet Hamlin/Getty Images
Salim Hamdan

Salim Hamdan attends his trial inside the war crimes courthouse at Camp Justice, the legal complex of the U.S. Military Commissions, at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba, July 23, 2008.

Janet Hamlin/Getty Images

Salim Hamdan, who worked for al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and has been held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay since 2002, has been sentenced to 66 months in prison for supporting terrorism.

Hamdan has acknowledged that he worked for bin Laden. But his larger importance is based on his roles as a defendant and petitioner in the legal battles surrounding other prisoners at Guantanamo Bay who have been declared by the U.S. government to be "enemy combatants."

Hamdan was born in Yemen in 1970, but the exact date is unconfirmed. His age is generally given as 37 or 38. He is married to a woman known as Um Fatima and is the father of two girls. One daughter was born in 2000 and the other in 2002, after he was captured in Afghanistan.

Court papers show that Hamdan met Osama bin Laden in 1996 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and was hired as the al-Qaida leader's personal driver and bodyguard.

This was just after bin Laden himself had returned to Afghanistan subsequent to being forced to leave his base in Sudan.

Hamdan worked for bin Laden during a period when al-Qaida launched a series of attacks on U.S. targets. They included the U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. Part of the testimony at Hamdan's trial centered on what knowledge, if any, he may have had about the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Hamdan was captured in November of 2001 by members of the Afghan Northern Alliance and then turned over to U.S. forces. At the time, he was alleged to be carrying two surface-to-air missiles to a battlefield near Kandahar.

Court documents acknowledge that Hamdan was kept in near isolation and subjected to coercive interrogation methods after his capture. He was declared to be an "enemy combatant" and sent to the U.S. military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 2002.

Hamdan came to public notice in 2004, when he was among the first prisoners to be formally charged with conspiracy and set to stand trial before a military commission. A federal court halted Hamdan's trial because of a dispute over whether he was a prisoner of war and thus subject to the protection of the Geneva Conventions.

In 2005, an appeals court ruled that the Geneva Conventions didn't apply to members of al-Qaida and sent Hamdan's case back to the military commission. In 2006, in a case called Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court found that the military commission itself had violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice as well as the Geneva Conventions.

In 2006, Congress passed a law designed to overcome the Supreme Court's objections to the military commissions, and Hamdan was once again scheduled for trial. In 2007 two military judges dropped all charges against Hamdan and another inmate on the grounds that although they were declared to be enemy combatants, a category that could apply to soldiers, they were never designated "unlawful" enemy combatants.

The head of the military commission system decided later that year that Hamdan was an "illegal enemy combatant," clearing the way for his trial in 2008.

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