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Split Verdict On Bin Laden's Driver At Guantanamo

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's more on this morning's verdict in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It was a war crimes trial, the first under the new military system set up for terrorism suspects. The defendant was Salim Hamdan. He was Osama bin Laden's driver. And a military jury found him guilty of some charges but cleared him on others. NPR's John McChesney is at Guantanamo Bay. And John, what's he guilty of, what's he not?

JOHN McCHESNEY: Well, Steve, he was found guilty of material support for, you know, the terrorist conspir - he was found guilty of the terrorist support for al-Qaida. But he was found not guilty of conspiring with al-Qaida. And that by most observers' observations here is, is more important than the material support charge. He was found not guilty of conspiring to further an unlawful attack and he was also found not guilty of conspiring to commit murder.

INSKEEP: So it's almost as if he was found guilty of being a terrorist sympathizer rather than a terrorist. Is that a proper way to put it?

McCHESNEY: Not quite. What he was convicted of was being a driver and a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and knowing at the time that he was doing those things that unlawful terrorist activities were going to take place or had taken place.

But he was caught with some SAM surface-to-air missiles, and in every case those charges were dismissed because it wasn't clear whether those missiles would be used in lawful combat. I can't explain to you the complexities of the arguments here about the law of war, but if you're a lawful combatant, and he was in some interpretations, the use of those missiles simply wasn't relevant. So they dismissed all those charges.

INSKEEP: So is this like a civilian court in that a sentence is now up to a judge?

McCHESNEY: The sentence will be - sentencing will be part of a separate procedure which will start this afternoon, and both sides present witnesses and then defendants will be up to the jury after they hear witnesses from both sides.

INSKEEP: Okay. And given that - given that he appears to have been cleared of the most serious charges, is it clear at this moment what possible prison time he's facing, what possible sentence?

McCHESNEY: It's not at all. And there's a qualifier to that. If he's sentenced, say, to six months, he's still detained here as an unlawful combatant, and even if he were sentenced to six months, it's not clear that he would be released. He could be help here indefinitely no matter what the sentence is.

INSKEEP: John McChesney at Guantanamo Bay, are saying that even if this guy had been found innocent of all the charges they might still keep holding him the same way they were before?

McCHESNEY: That's correct. There's been no ruling saying that that could not happen.

INSKEEP: Well now, what has the reaction been from Hamdan or from his lawyers?

McCHESNEY: Hamdan held his head in his hands today and wept as the verdict was read. His lawyers say they will litigate this until the end of time, basically. They're going to go back through the procedures they've gone; they've already gone to the Supreme Court with this, they're going to go back up the ladder of appellates, appellate courts and continue the litigation. And so we don't know where this is going to come out. This is not over at all.

INSKEEP: John, thanks very much.

McCHESNEY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John McChesney. He's at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where a trial has concluded with a split verdict. Salim Hamdan was found guilty of material support for terrorism, but cleared of some apparently more serious charges, including conspiracy to commit terrorist acts.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
John McChesney
Since 1979 senior correspondent John McChesney has been with NPR, where he has served as national editor (responsible for domestic news) and senior foreign editor. Over the course of his career with NPR, McChesney covered a variety of beats and traveled extensively throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and newscasts.