GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba - In a stunning rebuke, a six-member U.S. military jury Thursday ignored a Pentagon prosecutor's plea for a 30 years-plus term and ordered Osama bin Laden's driver to 66 months in prison.
With credit for time served given by the judge, that means Salim Hamdan, 40, of Yemen will be sent back to the general detainee population of Camp Delta by January, and eligible to return home.
Choked with emotion on hearing the sentence, Hamdan stood and addressed the jury, unscripted, and twice more apologized for any pain his work as a $200-a-month driver had caused.
''And I would like to thank you for what you have done for me,'' he said.
The jury's decision, after just 70 minutes of deliberation, was a huge rebuke to the U.S. government, which had insisted that on his conviction for material support for terror no less than 30 years confinement would suffice.
He is the first war-on-terror captive convicted at the first contested U.S. war crimes tribunal since World War II.
In response to a question sent to the judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, the jury knew before handing down the sentence that he had already gotten credit toward his conviction for 61 months and eight days.
A day earlier, the panel convicted the father of two with a fourth-grade education of providing material support for terror as Osama bin Laden's driver and bodyguard from 1996 to his capture in Afghanistan in 2001.
There was no immediate comment from the prosecutors, a mix of Defense Department and Justice Department lawyers. Prosecutor John Murphy had earlier in the day described Hamdan as a dangerous, ideological al Qaeda warrior who should be locked up for life.
Defense lawyers had consistently argued for years that the U.S. had made a scapegoat of the driver because his employer was still at large.
Pro-bono defense attorney Harry Schneider of Seattle told reporters moments after the sentence that guards took Hamdan to call his wife in Yemen, and give her the news.
''I think that will be a much easier phone call,'' Schneider said, than "some folks will have to make to Washington, D.C.''
In court, Hamdan's longest-serving defense attorney, retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, clasped the more diminutive Yemeni in a bearhug and both men openly wept.
Afterwards, Swift vowed that lawyers would work to send Hamdan home to his wife and two daughters by January. Lawyers were prepared to go straight to federal court with a habeas corpus petition, he said, were the U.S. to seek to continue to hold the driver after the sentence were done.
''What happened - despite the system - is justice,'' said Swift.
Defense lawyers calculated that Hamdan would be entitled to release before a new president takes the oath of office.
The jury was made up of senior U.S. military officers, among them an Apache helicopter pilot with battlefield experience, and included two colonels and two lieutenant colonels.
Led by a U.S. Navy captain, its most senior member, the jury acquitted him of a second charge of conspiracy alleging he was responsible for al Qaeda mayhem from the 1998 U.S. embassies bombings to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Allred had been inquiring into the circumstances of Hamdan's confinement at this sprawling offshore detention center for months. Defense lawyers said that ever since Hamdan was designated in July 2003 to face one of the very first trials, he had been separated from other detainees, in virtual solitary confinement with long periods of no sunshine.
Prosecutors and prison camps officials say there is no such thing as solitary confinement at Guantánamo.
Allred was still considering a motion for greater credit on Thursday even as the sentence was handed down.
After the jury's verdict, the judge turned to the convicted terrorist and said:
"I wish you godspeed, Mr. Hamdan. I hope the day comes when you return to your wife and your daughters and your country.''
''God willing,'' the man in traditional Yemeni robe and head scarf replied in Arabic, interrupting.
The judge continued: "And I hope that you are able to be a father, and a provider, and a husband in the best sense of the word.''
Then the detainee said it again: "Inshallah.''
Allred replied in Arabic. "Inshallah.''
As of Thursday, the Defense Department reported it held ''approximately 265'' detainees at this remote U.S. Navy base in Cuba - about 250 run-of-the-mill enemy combatants; 16 ''high-value detainees,'' meaning they were once held by the CIA and are in segregation at Camp 7, and one convict.
As the lone convict, his defense attorney told the judge, Hamdan was put in his own separate wing of Camp 5 Wednesday night.
Moments later, as he was led out of the courtroom by military guards, he turned to the spectators gallery, waved both hands in the air, and called out, "Bye-bye, everyone.''
© 2008 McClatchy Newspapers