GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- A US military jury gave Osama bin Laden's driver a surprisingly light sentence Thursday, making him eligible for release in five months despite the prosecutors' request for at least a 30-year sentence to deter would-be terrorists.
Salim Hamdan's sentence of 5 1/2 years, including five years and a month already served at Guantanamo Bay, fell far short of the life sentence he could have gotten for aiding terrorism by driving and guarding bin Laden. It now goes for mandatory review to a Pentagon official who can shorten the sentence but not extend it.
In this undated file photo Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden, is seen at unknown location. A jury of six military officers at Guantanamo Bay reached a split verdict on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008, in the war crimes trial of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, clearing him of some charges but convicting him of others that could send him to prison for life. The judge scheduled a sentencing hearing for later Wednesday. [Agencies]
It remains unclear what will happen to Hamdan once his sentence is served, since the US military has said it won't release anyone who still represents a threat. The judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, said Hamdan, who is from Yemen, would likely be eligible for release through the same administrative review process as other Guantanamo prisoners.
Defense lawyers said they expect Hamdan will be let go in five months. "It was all for show if Mr. Hamdan does not go home in December," said civilian defense attorney Charles Swift, who hugged Hamdan after the jurors left the courtroom.
Hamdan thanked the jurors for the sentence and repeated his apology for having served bin Laden.
"I would like to apologize one more time to all the members and I would like to thank you for what you have done for me," Hamdan told the five-man, one-woman jury, all military officers picked by the Pentagon for the first US war crimes trial in a half-century.
Hamdan waved both hands as he left the courtroom, saying "bye, bye" in English.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, said he could not speculate whether Hamdan would be released later this year or remain imprisoned as an "enemy combatant."
"I can reassure you that the Defense Department is hard at work on this issue," he said.
The military has not said where Hamdan will serve his sentence. His lawyers protested in court Thursday that Hamdan, as a convict, already had been moved to an empty wing of his prison at the isolated US military base in southeast Cuba.
"I hope the day comes that you return to your wife and daughters and your country, and you're able to be a provider, a father and a husband in the best sense of all those terms," the judge told Hamdan.
Hamdan, dressed in a charcoal sports coat and white robe, responded: "God willing."
While being convicted of supporting terrorism, Hamdan was acquitted of providing missiles to al-Qaida and knowing his work would be used for terrorism. He also was cleared of being part of al-Qaida's conspiracy to attack the United States — the most serious charges he faced.
Military prosecutors said even a life sentence would be fitting in order to send an example to would-be terrorists.
But the jury apparently agreed with the judge, who called him only a "small player" in al-Qaida.
"The decision showed what the jury thought Hamdan was worth," Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo trials, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Referring to the decks of cards the US military has distributed with images of most-wanted terrorists, Davis said: "Hamdan would be the two of clubs."
Still, the sentence should give skeptics some pause, Davis said, by showing that military juries are independent and carefully evaluate evidence presented in the war crimes trials.
"There is a perception that trying people in front of the military was going to be a rubber-stamp process," Davis said. "This shows they are conscientious, following instructions and are making rational decisions."