Sudanese war criminal at Guantánamo turns government witness

Miami HeraldFebruary 18, 2011 

A Sudanese former terror camp instructor traded a promise to turn government witness for release from prison by 2014 in a plea bargain made public Friday — moments after a military jury sentenced the man to a symbolic 14 more years at Guantánamo.

Noor Uthman Mohammed, about 44, sealed the deal Feb. 2. But under a peculiar rite at the war court called military commissions, the Pentagon assembled a nine-officer panel led by an anonymous Army colonel to deliberate a punishment in the case.

It took less than six hours to study the evidence and order him to serve the maximum — 14 years in prison.

Noor sat passively in court throughout the week-long proceeding, his first if the U.S. government exercises its plea bargain prerogative to have him testify against others.

He had pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy and providing material support for terror for his role as a 90s era weapons instructor at an Afghan training camp then holed up in the company of terrorists at a safe house in Pakistan after 9/11.

At least four others from that safe house are now held without charges at Guantánamo. They include a prized war on terror captive once waterboarded by the CIA known as Abu Zubyadah.

It was the Obama administration’s third military commission conviction. They have all been plea bargains. And it was the last current active case before the Pentagon’s war court, said chief prosecutor Navy Capt. John F. Murphy. The White House has frozen all future proceedings while it decides how to proceed with the fate of the 172 captives at Guantanamo, only four of whom have been convicted of war crimes.

Noor’s 11-page deal signed with a senior Pentagon lawyer said that, as a condition of his early release, he would testify truthfully at future “military commissions or federal court cases, including testimony before federal grand juries.”

But the road ahead was fraught with uncertainty.

  • Congress has banned the release of Guantánamo captives to nations on the State Department’s Sponsor of Terror list. Sudan is on it.
  • Congress forbids the Defense Department from using its funds to bring a captive to U.S. soil. Prosecutors could not say whether he’d be able to testify remotely to a grand jury.
  • The Pentagon’s policy is that once a convict like Noor finishes his sentence he is not necessarily set free but can be held indefinitely — not as a war criminal but like any other war on terror detainee.

“We expect the government to honor its agreement,” said Noor’s long-serving attorney, Army Maj. Amy Fitzgibbons, who traveled to the state sponsor of terror nation to prepare a defense.

She also said she was “very hopeful” that Sudan would be off the list by the time her client’s term ran out. Just in case, she said, defense lawyers would develop a “back-up plan” to find the man who has already spent eight years at Guantánamo a place to go.

In closing arguments Friday, defense and prosecution lawyers painted a starkly different portrait of the man.

Noor was a small weapons trainer and sometime operations manager at the Khaldan paramilitary camp in the 90s, which Pentagon prosecutor Navy Lt. Cmdr. Arthur Gaston called “a vital pipeline of recruits for al Qaeda.”

“He has admitted to making hundreds of terrorists, and simply set them off into the world,” said Gaston, reading between the lines of Noor’s nine-page confession that was crafted by lawyers.

U.S. Marine Capt. Chris Kannady, one of Noor’s defense attorneys, cautioned the jury that Noor was never directly tied to any terror attack. Khaldan was never part of al Qaeda, he said, and Noor never joined the global terror movement.

“You can’t sentence him to the offenses of others,” he said. “He did plead guilty. But he didn’t plead guilty to being a terrorist.”

Noor has been held at Guantanamo since August 2002. In a written bid for leniency, he described being held by U.S. guards under abusive conditions at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan. He detailed painful shackling, blasts of hot and cold, deafening music, and being left naked in sight of female soldiers.

Kannady asked the jury of officers of the Army, Navy and Air Force not to disregard that claim in weighing his sentence.

“Our government has confirmed that some very bad things were done to people while Noor was in custody. They were happening. There’s no question. You decide if they were happening to Noor or not,” he said. “There were beatings, humiliation, fear, isolation and other things ... just difficult to stomach.”

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