Bin Laden driver released from Guantanamo, headed home

Miami HeraldNovember 25, 2008 

The Pentagon early Tuesday morning sent Osama bin Laden's driver home to Yemen, a month before the first Guantanamo captive convicted of war crimes by a military jury completed his 66-month prison sentence.

Salim Hamdan, 40, had been held prisoner by American forces for seven years.

He was being returned to his homeland under a diplomatic deal that will have him finish his sentence in detention in his homeland, according to military sources familiar with the arrangement.

It was unclear whether the transfer represented a breakthrough in long-stalled U.S. efforts to get Yemen to establish a program for returning jihadists now held at Guantanamo.

Yemenis represent the largest single detainee population -- about 100 of the 250 war-on-terror captives at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.

A repatriation flight left the base before dawn on Tuesday, a Department of Defense official told The Miami Herald.

Hamdan, a father of two with a fourth-grade education, emerged as one of the best known captives held at the controversial prison camps in Guantánamo.

His defense lawyers challenged his proposed trial by military commission all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and won, only to see the White House reinstate the war court at Guantanamo with the help of Congress.

A six-member military jury convicted Hamdan on Aug. 6 after a two-week trial at the remote U.S. outpost named Camp Justice and staged at a crude tent and trailer compound.

Hamdan had maintained his innocence of war crimes throughout his detention. Then, during sentencing, he apologized for any pain caused by his work as bin Laden's $200-a-month driver in Afghanistan.

He said he worked for money, not ideology.

In a surprising development, the military jury then spurned a Pentagon prosecutor's request for a 30-year sentence. The U.S. officers sentenced him to 66 months, with credit for time served.

Under that timeline, his Guantanamo sentence would have expired on Dec. 27.

But Defense officials had argued they were under no obligation to free him after his sentence. Under a post 9/11 detention doctrine set up by the United States, the Bush administration argued that it could hold enemy combatants indefinitely, even after time served for war crimes.

Instead, Hamdan was returned to his homeland nearly seven years to the day of his capture. Testimony at his summertime trial revealed that allied Afghan forces grabbed him at a checkpoint near Taktapol, Afghanistan, on Nov. 24, 2001 -- and turned him over to U.S. Special Forces the same day.

There was never any evidence presented at Hamdan's trial that he ever fired a shot or knew in advance about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- even as he drove some of the architects in the back seat of the boss' car.

So the jury acquitted him of a broader conspiracy charge.

In the landmark Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld case, decided in June 2006, the Supreme Court justices ruled 5-3 that President Bush had exceeded his war-time authority by ordering the creation of military commissions without consulting Congress.

Moreover, the justices ruled that Guantanamo detainees are entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions.

Unbowed, the White House resurrected its war crimes court at Guantanamo with an act of Congress in 2006 and charged Hamdan anew.

Once convicted, Hamdan was held in a cell in an empty prison camp corridor at Guantánamo designed to segregate war criminals from accused terrorists or routine enemy combatants.

He had amused himself in his isolation by mimicking his trial bailiff with shouts of ''All Rise!'' as U.S. guards passed by.

On Nov. 3, he was joined in a nearby cell by fellow Yemeni citizen Ali Hamza al Bahlul, bin Laden's media secretary, who was convicted of both conspiracy and supporting terror -- and sentenced to life in prison.

Now Bahlul remains the lone occupant of Guantanamo's convict corridor inside a 100-cell steel and cement prison called Camp 5.

The next war crimes trial is slated to start Jan. 5.

A young Afghan named Mohammed Jawad is accused of throwing a grenade that wounded two U.S. soldiers in Kabul, Afghanistan. That trial date is in doubt because the Pentagon prosecutor is appealing the trial judge's ruling that threw out all of Jawad's confessions obtained after his torture by Afghan police.

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