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Bin Laden’s Driver Receives 5 1/2 Year Prison Sentence

August 7, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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A military tribunal jury sentenced Salim Hamdan, the former driver of Osama bin Laden, to five and a half years in prison Thursday. A Miami Herald reporter details the courtroom proceedings and what lies ahead for the Yemeni detainee.

MARGARET WARNER: Carol Rosenberg, thanks for being with us. Take us back into the courtroom. How did this unfold?

CAROL ROSENBERG, The Miami Herald: Well, this was remarkable. You know, the jury had asked one question before they went off to deliberate on the sentence. And the question was if he was going to get any credit for time served. And they told them that basically he was getting 61 months’ credit.

So when they came back with a verdict of 66 months, that means that the Osama bin Laden’s driver’s term of sentence will be over by the end of the year.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how did Hamdan react?

CAROL ROSENBERG: He was very emotional. First of all, he stood up and asked to make a speech, which is not part of the military script for these sorts of things, but the judge gave him the opportunity to talk. And he thanked everybody. And he apologized. And he apologized again.

Salem Hamdan’s explanation was that he really didn’t understand how bad his boss had been and that he never really walked away from working for him — this was his explanation — because he needed the money. And so, by the time sentencing came, he apologized for any pain that his work had caused people.

You know, yesterday he was acquitted of the conspiracy, the larger crime of having been responsible for September 11th and the other al-Qaida spectacles. But he was convicted of providing material support for terror, meaning, as the driver and bodyguard of bin Laden, he was responsible. They actually convicted him of being a war criminal, a terrorist.

Hamdan's future still unclear

MARGARET WARNER: Now, I want to get into what's going to happen to him, but, first of all, how did the prosecution react to this?

CAROL ROSENBERG: You know, they haven't said anything. The Pentagon spokesman here said it's a vindication of the system, that this proves that a jury can act independently, look at the facts, and make a decision that's independent of what the government wants. And they did.

I mean, this is a -- the government had asked for 30 years to life. And they said this man can go home before New Year's Eve, effectively.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what does happen to him, though? I mean, the judge told Hamdan, as I understand it, that he's not exactly sure what happens to him after his sentence on the criminal charge is served.

CAROL ROSENBERG: Well, that's the remarkable thing about the war on terror doctrine that's down here at Guantanamo. The 265 men who are here, including the one convict, are all enemy combatants.

And under the doctrine, they can be held as long as there's a global war on terror, innocent or guilty. So theoretically, after the sentence is served, they could continue to hold him as an enemy combatant.

So nobody knows exactly the day after his sentence is served where he goes except for perhaps back in the regular population of the other enemy combatants.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, is this -- either the sentence or the conviction itself -- subject to review or appeal? And if so, what kind?

CAROL ROSENBERG: My understanding -- and this is all real new, because this is the first one of these -- is that they can only reduce the sentence. They can't increase it. They can't find that the jury should have given him more time.

So, I mean, there are reviews, and they can find that there were flaws in the trial, but they can't -- they can't make him -- they can't extend the sentence. They can hold him longer, but they can't extend his sentence.

Strange experience in tribunal

MARGARET WARNER: Then, can his lawyers, if they chose to, actually appeal the basic verdict, the one that came down yesterday, to a higher authority, either military or civilian?

CAROL ROSENBERG: Well, this is the interesting part. His lawyers just came over and they said, look, if this man isn't going home by New Year's, they're going to federal court to file a habeas corpus petition or to ask the judge in Washington, a civilian judge, to order his release.

If you remember, Guantanamo detainees just got back the right to challenge their detention on grounds of indefinite detention, habeas corpus petition. This is something that they had lost for a couple of years and was restored by the U.S. Supreme Court.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, Carol, you've been down there covering this. What's it been like for journalists trying to get information about what's going on? In other words, do you have pretty open access to the lawyers? Is it a lot like covering a civilian trial or quite different?

CAROL ROSENBERG: This is like no other trial most of us has ever covered. I mean, first of all, we haven't heard from the prosecutors until today, and they haven't actually had a spokesman. They've said that they want to do their speaking in court.

But what they do when they go into these national security sessions is they turn off the sound, and they escort the public out, and then part of the trial goes on without us knowing what was said. You get led back in, and you hear references to evidence that was presented, but you really don't know what the context was.

MARGARET WARNER: So a very different experience?

CAROL ROSENBERG: Yes, yes, very different.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Carol Rosenberg with the Miami Herald, thanks for being with us.