GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba - The military jurors who gave Osama bin Laden's driver a light sentence want him freed from Guantanamo once he completes it in December and were frustrated to learn the military can hold him indefinitely, one of the panelists said Wednesday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the juror said the panel of six American military officers did not learn until the trial ended on Thursday that the Pentagon retains the right to hold Salim Hamdan as an "enemy combatant," even after he completes his sentence.
"After all the effort that we put in to get somebody a fair trial ... and then to say no matter what we did it didn't matter - I don't see that as a positive step," the juror said in the telephone interview. The juror cannot be identified because the judge at the first war-crimes trial since the end of World War II declared the panelists' identities must be kept secret.
The jury convicted Hamdan of supporting terrorism but acquitted him of conspiracy. His sentence of five and a half years, with credit for some of his time served, means he is eligible for release in December.
The Defense Department insists it has a right to hold "enemy combatants" who are considered to pose a threat to the United States - even those cleared of charges or given short sentences in the military tribunals at Guantanamo.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, declined to comment specifically on Hamdan's case. "The Defense Department continues to assess the situation," he said.
Military prosecutors had recommended a sentence of 30 years to life in prison, but the juror said the evidence did not support their portrayal of Hamdan as a hardened al-Qaida warrior.
Some of the most compelling evidence against that portrayal came in writing from confessed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, another Guantanamo inmate, who dismissed Hamdan as a "nuts and bolts guy ... not a key player," the juror said.
"I think it was generally our opinion that (Hamdan) made some bad mistakes in his life that led him down a path that turned out to be a bad one. Once he was in it, I don't see that it was that easy to get out," the juror said.
Hamdan, a Yemeni with a fourth-grade education, testified that he took the job before he knew bin Laden was involved in terrorism and stayed by his side because he needed the US$200-a-month salary to support his wife and two daughters.
In a closing statement, he also apologized for the lives lost in al-Qaida's attacks.
"The fact that he apologized, that didn't sound like al-Qaida to me," the juror said.
Hamdan was the first prisoner to face trial at Guantanamo.
"If the first guy is getting a 30-year sentence, what do you do for a real hard-core criminal?" the juror said. "He was just misled and the victim of circumstance."
Military prosecutors plan trials for about 80 inmates, including Mohammed and four other alleged plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Pentagon has said that after Hamdan completes his sentence, he will be eligible for release through the same review process as other detainees at this U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.
© 2008 Associated Press