RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Salim Hamdan may not be going free anytime soon. The defendant in a war crimes trial got just five and a half years in prison for serving as Osama bin Laden's driver. Most of that time he's already served. But that does not mean the gates are about to swing open at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. NPR's John McChesney is at Guantanamo. He's been covering this case.
And John, how does this work exactly? He's got five and a half years and what happens?
JOHN MCCHESNEY: Well, actually, he doesn't have five and a half years. With time credited to him, what he's already spent here, is five and a half months. Now, he's still classified as an unlawful combatant and that means perhaps that they will keep him.
I think the defense does not believe that will happen simply because it would create an international outrage, because 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 five and a half months, this defense team - which is very dedicated to him - will be all over - will be all over them. And I don't think the administration wants to brook that kind of world reaction.
INSKEEP: So what we may see is a lot of public pressure as that possible release date approaches. Does that underline in a way, John McChesney, this sentence was a rebuke to the prosecutors who wanted a lot more years in prison?
MCCHESNEY: I think the sentence was a rebuke, and they also got a slap down on the conspiracy charge. So they had a double defeat here in some ways. The conspiracy charge was considered, you know, the more serious of the two charges. He was acquitted of that. He was convicted of material support for terrorism or a terrorist organization. And then the jury came back with this light sentence.
INSKEEP: And we should mention this is a military jury in a system that's being run on the military rules, correct?
MCCHESNEY: Well, it's being run under the rules of the military commissions, but the military commissions are different than a court martial. There are a lot looser standards under these military commissions in terms of hearsay, in terms of testimony that might have extracted under coercive conditions and so on.
INSKEEP: Well, after this trial in which one of Osama bin Laden's drivers was found guilty but not of all the charges, and was sentenced but not to as many years as some might have expected, what are people saying about that system?
MCCHESNEY: Well, I can tell you that they have absolutely opposing views. Let's listen to Colonel Steven David, the chief of the defense team. Here's what he says about the military commission system.
Colonel STEVEN DAVID (Attorney): This case is not a vindication of the military commission system. Quite the contrary. There's only been vindication of the power and reason of six panel members to stand tall, take their oath seriously, and do their duty to do the right thing.
MCCHESNEY: Now, prosecutor John Murphy, who's with the Justice Department, had an entirely different take on the legitimacy of this system.
Mr. JOHN MURPHY (Prosecutor): For people looking at the system, I think they should say here's proof that it operates fairly, both to the government and to the defense. The government obtained convictions and the members determined what that sentence should be.
INSKEEP: So those are some of the reactions after this sentencing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for Osama bin Laden's driver. John McChesney, what's it like to be there?
MCCHESNEY: In that courtroom there was jubilation amongst the defense team. Charlie Swift, who's had this case for five years, and Mr. Hamdan embraced. Mr. Hamdan raised his arms and gave a victory signal. The judge said - the judge, quite remarkably, said I hope, Mr. Hamdan, you're soon able to join your family in Yemen. And Mr. Hamdan said Inshallah, and the judge answered him Inshallah. It was an amazingly emotional scene.
INSKEEP: Well, what happens now, John, for the other people who are still at Guantanamo?
MCCHESNEY: That's not clear. These trials don't have any - and I hope I'm being right here in this word - precedential standing. Each one is different. Each one is done by a different judge. Each one is done by a different jury. So it doesn't necessarily mean that what happened in this one, you know, will happen in the next one. Although you might say the prosecution will be a little bit more cautious with this conspiracy charge.
INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much. That's NPR's John McChesney at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
MCCHESNEY: Thank you, Steve.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.