Courts & Crime

Conviction of Guantánamo’s lone lifer upheld by U.S. Supreme Court

A Guantánamo prisoner held in single-cell confinement at Camp 5 on Nov. 19, 2008 in this photo approved for release by the U.S. military.
A Guantánamo prisoner held in single-cell confinement at Camp 5 on Nov. 19, 2008 in this photo approved for release by the U.S. military. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to review the Guantánamo war court conviction of a man who made recruiting videos for al-Qaida before the Sept. 11 attacks, upholding the conspiracy conviction of the only war criminal serving a life sentence at the terror prison.

University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck, who last week in a New York Times commentary urged the court to take the question of whether military commissions can try “purely domestic offenses,” declared the development a “big win” for the U.S. government.

Tuesday’s announcement noted without explanation that Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the decision to reject reviewing the 2008 conspiracy conviction of Ali Hamza al Bahlul, 48, a Yemeni combatant who served as Osama bin Laden’s media secretary for a time.

Only 10 of the 41 war prisoners at Guantánamo today have been charged with war crimes, and only Bahlul has been sentenced. The other nine are in various phases of their proceedings, including two men who pleaded guilty in exchange for lesser sentences.

Bahlul, who was known to shout “boycott, boycott, boycott” during Guantánamo court proceedings, mounted no defense at his trial. Pentagon prosecutors called him a propagandist, and trusted member bin Laden’s inner circle.

He admitted to creating an at-times cartoonish laptop computer recruiting video for the terror group al-Qaida that celebrated the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole warship off Bahlul’s native Yemen that killed 17 U.S. sailors.

The military jury then sentenced him to life imprisonment.

At issue was whether to look at his main surviving war court conviction — conspiring to commit terror — which was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, then reinstated after reconsideration.

In Afghanistan, Bahlul essentially served as bin Laden’s Public Affairs officer. He collected news clips, photographed the boss making speeches, and also created videos.

The Supreme Court has one other possible Guantánamo military commission case on this year’s agenda:

A pre-trial challenge by Saudi Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, who faces a death-penalty trial as the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing off Aden, Yemen.

Nashiri’s lawyers argue, because the CIA subjected him to years of “physical, psychological and sexual torture,” the justices should resolve the open legal question of when the “War on Terror” began. The justices are expected to discuss whether to take that case Friday, and could have a decision as early as Monday.

RELATED: In a first, former CIA captive appeals Guantánamo trial to Supreme Court

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg