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Driving Osama: Respect sentence for bin Laden's driver

Published August 8, 2008 8:38 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan, popularly known as Osama bin Laden's driver, was a bit player in the al-Qaida terror organization. That's the message from the verdict of the military commission that tried him at Guantanamo and imposed a surprisingly lenient sentence.

It follows that the government should release him after he completes his sentence by year's end. To do otherwise, to continue to hold him as an enemy combatant for the duration of the so-called "war on terror," as the Bush administration has insisted it can, would be absurd. If the result of his trial and its sentence do not affect the term of his confinement, what was the point?

Hamdan's was a mixed verdict. He was acquitted of the more serious charge of conspiring in al-Qaida's terror plots, but he was convicted of supporting terror by driving bin Laden and ferrying missiles.

The six military officers who served as the jury imposed a sentence of 5 1/2 years, and the judge, a Navy captain, gave him credit for the more than five years he already has been held. That means he could be released by year's end.

Metaphorically, the military commission system also received a mixed verdict. Hamdan was the first defendant to be tried for war crimes in such a court since the end of World War II. Congress created the commission after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that President Bush could not, on his own authority, create a similar court.

The rules in this game are not the same as in the civilian courts. They are stacked in the government's favor, and constitutional rights do not apply. Self-incriminating evidence can be admitted regardless of whether the defendant was advised of that before confessing, and information obtained under interrogation that is "cruel" or "inhuman" also is admissible.

Nevertheless, the jury of officers weighed that evidence carefully and rejected the pleas of the government that Hamdan be convicted as a terrorist conspirator and sentenced to life in prison.

These are military officers who must understand better than most that a terrorist released from custody could return to fighting the United States and killing Americans. By their verdicts and sentence they signalled that they believed the defense argument that Hamdan is a small fish, not a terrorist shark, who just wants to go back to his family in Yemen.

The Bush administration should respect those officers' judgment.