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Guantanamo Jury Gives Hamdan Light Sentence

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

A surprisingly light sentence was handed down today at the war crimes trial of Salim Hamdan at Guantanamo Bay, and it didn't take the military jury long to reach its decision. Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of at least 30 years. But Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden, was sentenced to five and a half years. Taking into account the more than five years he's already served, Hamdan has just about five months to go. But the Bush administration has said it could continue to hold him indefinitely as an enemy combatant.

Yesterday, the same jury convicted Hamdan of giving material aid to terrorism, but Hamdan was acquitted of the more serious charge - conspiring with al-Qaida. NPR's John McChesney reports on today's sentencing from Guantanamo.

JOHN McCHESNEY: It's been a double defeat for the prosecution here. First, the acquittal on the more serious charge of conspiracy and then the short sentence. The defense was jubilant. Mr. Hamdan raised his arms in a signal of triumph, and Judge Keith Allred said he hoped Mr. Hamdan could soon return to his family in Yemen. Insha'Allah, the judge responded.

Army Colonel Steven David, chief of the defense, said that the government overcharged and overreacted, and that asking for a sentence of 30 years to life was inappropriate. Apparently, the jury agreed. But Colonel David made it clear that the Hamdan defense team had not changed its mind about the legitimacy of the war crimes commissions.

Army Col. STEVEN DAVID (Hamdan Defense Team): This case is not a vindication of the military commission system; quite the contrary. There's only been vindication of the power and reason of six panel members to stand tall, take their oaths seriously and do their duty to do the right thing.

McCHESNEY: The prosecutors had a much different take on the legitimacy of these commissions. Here's prosecutor John Murphy.

Mr. JOHN MURPHY (Prosecutor, Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp): For people looking at this system, I think they should say: Here's proof that it operates fairly both to the government and to the defense. The government obtained convictions, and then the members determined what that sentence should be.

McCHESNEY: Murphy and the other members of the prosecution team said they were disappointed in the sentence, however. Mr. Murphy had argued only a few hours earlier that Mr. Hamdan was a dangerous man and that letting him go would be a danger to the country. And it's not entirely clear that Mr. Hamdan will go home in five and a half months. He is still classified as an unlawful combatant and as such could be held here indefinitely. The defense made it clear that should that happen, they would immediately intervene.

John McChesney, NPR News, Guantanamo Bay. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.