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Agence France Presse

After Split Decision In Guantanamo, Legal Debate Rages On


US NAVAL BASE AT GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - Military jurors cleared Osama bin Laden's driver of conspiracy charges but found him guilty of helping Al-Qaeda, a split decision that failed to end the controversy over the fairness of the US "war on terror" tribunals.

In the first full trial before the special tribunals in Guantanamo, the jury Wednesday concluded Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni national, provided "material support" to the terror network by driving bin Laden and ferrying weapons.

For critics of the special tribunals, the trial offered further proof that the system set up to try terror suspects was fatally flawed.

But for President George W. Bush's administration, the result showed the process had been fair and rigorous.

The White House praised the verdict after it was announced and the Defense Department vowed to press ahead with trials of at least 20 more detainees held at the prison in Guantanamo.

"We're pleased that Salim Hamdan received a fair trial," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto, adding it was "a fair and appropriate legal process."

The six-member jury of military officers on Thursday is set to impose a sentence on Hamdan, who faces a possible maximum term of life in prison.

At sentencing hearings that began on Wednesday afternoon, the Navy officer presiding over the case, Keith Allred, rejected a request by the prosecution to call an FBI agent to describe the effects of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Allred said Hamdan was "such a small player" that it would be unfair to have the jury hear the testimony as it would imply Hamdan had a role in the 9/11 attacks.

The case, the first US war crimes trial since World War II, was seen as an important test of the controversial military commission system that has been widely criticized as unfair by human rights groups.

Clad in a white turban and tan coat, Hamdan stood with a solemn expression and then bowed his head as the verdict was read out in the courtroom at the remote US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Defense lawyers said he was in an "emotional" state.

The rejection of the conspiracy charge meant prosecutors were unable to prove that Hamdan helped plot Al-Qaeda attacks on civilians or other targets.

Defense lawyers said they would appeal and were optimistic the case would be taken up by federal civilian courts, which have previously questioned the administration's prosecution and treatment of Guantanamo inmates.

"I am very confident that this will go on appeal to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia if nothing else to challenge many aspects of this system," said military lawyer Brian Mizer from Hamdan's defense team.

Defense lawyers say material support for terrorism should not be treated as a war crime and that Hamdan's trial was marked by the use of dubious hearsay evidence, coercive interrogations and secret testimony.

They also argue that Hamdan was convicted under a law adopted in 2006, which established the military commissions, long after he was captured in 2001 in Afghanistan.

But the chief prosecutor, Colonel Lawrence Morris, said he was "wholly content" with the verdict and that the system was vindicated "as an extraordinarily fair, open, and just process that produces a reliable result."

"We will press forward with litigating the cases already charged and to charge additional cases as soon as they are ready."

© 2008 Agence France Presse

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