Freedom New Mexico
We are still not fans of the military commission system for dealing with suspected terrorists being held at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. But the first test of the system, the trial of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former driver for terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, has come out with a verdict that seems roughly fair, largely due to the personal integrity of the military officers who conducted it and served as the jury.
The military commission system, created by 2006 legislation in the wake of Supreme Court decisions invalidating the previous system, still allows hearsay evidence and secret documents the defense in some cases may not be able to see, let alone challenge. It seemed so rigged that Col. Morris Davis, formerly the chief prosecutor, quit last October because he “concluded that full, fair and open trials were not possible under the current system.”
However Navy Capt. Keith Allred, who served as judge, went beyond the formal rules to make the trial of Hamdan as fair as possible. And the jury of six senior military officers, in a split verdict, found Hamdan guilty of supporting terrorism, but not guilty of conspiring to commit terrorism. Given that Hamdan was a paid driver for Osama bin Laden from 1997 to 2001, that’s a reasonable conclusion. By driving and protecting the leader he did support terrorism. But it seems unlikely he conspired to commit terrorism.
The next day the same jury sentenced him to 66 months in prison (prosecutors had asked for 30 years). Since the judge had earlier agreed to count five of the six years he has spent in Guantanamo against his sentence, he could be free to return to his wife and children in Yemen soon.
It is unclear, however, whether President Bush might continue to detain him on the basis of his designation as an “enemy combatant.” His lawyers also say they will appeal the verdict to a federal appeals court.
Despite the deficiencies of the military commission system, this is a reasonable outcome. Hamdan was hardly a key al-Qaida planner or active terrorist, but his actions — even if they were done only for the money as he claimed — supported terrorism.
Future trials of detainees accused of much more serious crimes, including Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, will present the system with more difficult challenges. The apparent desire of the military judge and jury in this trial to be fair to both sides suggests they just might be successful.