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Gitmo defendants mostly low-level figures

Osama bin Laden's driver, who received only a five-year sentence, is not so different from the majority of the 265 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay: a low-level player without a proven record of terrorism.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Osama bin Laden's driver, who received only a five-year sentence, is not so different from the majority of the 265 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay: a low-level player without a proven record of terrorism.

Only a small group of recent arrivals from CIA custody — including five alleged Sept. 11 plotters — seem to fit the profile of hardcore militants who threaten America's existence, men so dangerous that a special tribunal was needed to try them.

The U.S. military officers who served as jurors in the first trial clearly weren't convinced that Osama bin Laden's chauffeur was as dangerous as the prosecution contended, acquitting Salim Hamdan of charges that he conspired with al-Qaida and convicting him mainly of driving a car.

His startlingly light sentence Thursday makes him eligible for release by the end of the year.

The next cases on tap go after other seemingly minor players. At most, they are accused of throwing grenades at U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan — not acts such as genocide or the slaughter of civilians that most people associate with war crimes.

Military prosecutors argue that even low-level Taliban and al-Qaida figures violated the rules of war by not wearing uniforms and not serving under any nation's flag.

They rejected trying the Guantanamo prisoners before normal military or civilian courts, instead designing a special tribunal that keeps classified evidence secret to protect intelligence sources and techniques, and can choose to allow statements obtained using sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures or other harsh methods.

Reaching too far?
Many observers at Hamdan's trial said nothing about him suggested the government needed a special court to try him.

"If the government heard the jury's message, it will not use a flawed war court to prosecute conduct that does not violate the laws of war," Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union said Friday on this isolated U.S. military base in southeast Cuba.

Even some supporters of the military commission, as the special tribunal is called, felt the prosecution reached too far in Hamdan's case.

"The lesson I hope the government learns from this case, amongst other things, is ... don't bring skimpy or weak charges of conspiracy," Charles "Cully" Stimson, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, told The Associated Press in an e-mail.

If there was any sense of satisfaction for proponents of the special tribunal, it was that a long sentence for Hamdan was not a foregone conclusion — although the military still reserves the right to hold him indefinitely after his sentence ends.

"We're pleased that Salim Hamdan received a fair trial," deputy White House spokesman Tony Fratto said in a statement.

Alleged 9/11 plotters
But for those seeking atonement for the horrors of the Sept. 11 attacks that killed almost 3,000 people, there was none.

They will likely have to wait for at least two more trials to unfold before getting a chance.

No trial date has been set for the five men charged at Guantanamo Bay in the 9/11 attacks. Confessed mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-defendants were arraigned on capital charges in June, but no further hearings for the joint case are expected until next month at the earliest.

After the jury's rebuff of the prosecution in the Hamdan case, the lawyers for the alleged 9/11 plotters are especially concerned that the Bush administration will rush the showcase trial for political purposes, trying to schedule it before the November presidential election.

"I think this is the big five, and they want to get them into court before the election so they can validate this process," said Army Maj. Jon Jackson, the Pentagon-appointed attorney for one of the men.

But the chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay told AP it would be improper to move the case forward for political expediency.

"It is important that these cases go forward at the pace that justice requires," said Army Col. Lawrence Morris. "Prosecutors cannot — should not — 'accelerate' cases, but should try them with as much dispatch as they can, recognizing that timely justice is appropriate both for the accused and society."

The next two defendants expected to have their day in court are Omar Khadr and Mohammed Jawad. Khadr, a Canadian who was 15 when he was captured, is charged with killing a U.S. soldier with a grenade. Jawad, an Afghan, allegedly wounded two soldiers with a grenade in a separate attack.

Both prisoners have pretrial hearings next week.

Meanwhile, there may be some fallout from the Hamdan trial as the Pentagon reflects on the verdicts and sentence.

"Mr. Hamdan is about to make a phone call home to Yemen," said Harry Schneider, one of his civilian attorneys. "And I think it will be a much easier one than one that some other folks have to make to D.C."