GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — An Air Force judge seated a 10-officer war crimes commission Wednesday in the case of a confessed al Qaida cook and driver, finally starting the sentencing phase of the government's first Guantanamo plea deal of the Obama administration.
Ibrahim al Qosi, 50, of Sudan, reportedly agreed to a secret two-year prison sentence as part of his July 7 guilty plea to supporting and conspiring with al Qaida.
But, under the formula for the first war crimes tribunals since World War II, a jury of junior-to field-grade American officers gets to decide his for-the-record sentence.
So the prosecutors called Navy Criminal Investigative Service special agent Robert McFadden to give the jurors a short course in the history of Osama bin Laden's terror group.
Even a cook is no mere al Qaida laborer, he said. To run the al Qaida kitchen for a bachelors' compound in Kandahar, said McFadden, Qosi had to have the trust of Bin Laden's inner circle.
In a bid for leniency, Navy defense lawyer Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier broadcast videos she made of Qosi's father and elder brother in their native Atbara, Sudan. Each sought to assure the jury that, once released, Qosi would be living with them, attending to their needs.
The Qosi proceedings were being held at the same time as jury selection for the trial of Guantanamo's youngest and last western captive, the Toronto-born Omar Khadr, in a different tribunal chamber.
And while the Qosi case has drawn less interest, this week's effort to mount the sentencing hearing illustrates how much the six-year-old on-again, off-again military commissions are still a work in progress.
The day opened with Air Force Lt. Col. Nancy Paul, Qosi's judge, reversing herself on an order to the prison camps Monday that, whatever sentence Qosi receives, he must be held in communal POW-style camp for compliant prisoners.
Paul issued the order Monday, saying she understood captivity in the company of some of the other cooperative detainees at Guantanamo was part of a secret annex to his plea agreement approved by retired Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald, the top Pentagon official overseeing military commissions.
But by Wednesday she noted that collective confinement was not a promise but a recommendation, in part, because, despite a Pentagon bureaucrat's directive in 2008, the U.S. military has never developed a policy or plan for how to confine war court convicts at Guantanamo.
Only three men have been convicted at a military commission and two of them are already free. The third, al Qaida filmmaker Ali Hamza al Bahlul of Yemen, is serving a life sentence and kept apart from the other 175 captives under a prison camp interpretation of the Geneva Conventions that segregates war criminals from ordinary war captives at Guantanamo.
Balul was convicted in November of 2008 and for a time was held in a cell on a special convict's block in Camp 5, an austere steel and cement prison camp building with accommodations similar to a Super-Max in the United States.
But Qosi's attorneys sought, as part of the secret plea deal, assurances that he could continue to stay in a collective prison camp setting where captives eat together, pray together and sleep in bunkhouses until his repatriation.
The al Arabiya satellite channel reported last month that Qosi was secretly promised he'd return to his native Sudan after two more years in Guantanamo. War court spokesmen refuse to confirm it.