Hamdan receives light sentence; could force enemy combatant test

A military jury in Guantanamo Thursday gave Salim Hamdan a surprisingly light sentence of 5 1/2 years. And since Hamdan has already been imprisoned at the Navy base for five years, his sentence would be completed sometime next year.

Hamdan was convicted Wednesday of providing material support to terrorists, but was acquitted of the more serious charge of conspiracy. In essence, the six-member jury did not buy the Pentagon’s argument that Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, was a key operative of al Qaeda.

But the Pentagon has made clear that intends to hold Hamdan as an enemy combatant beyond the time his term ends. The Defense Department maintains that it can hold foreign nationals who have been classified as enemy combatants as long as hostilities continue. In a global war on terror, of course, it’s difficult to say when exactly that point might be reached.

And as an enemy combatant, Hamdan has the right to challenge the basis for detention in a habeas corpus proceeding in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It would be interesting to see how a judge might view his being detained after he has finished his full sentence.

The status of Hamdan and other enemy combatants will present a challenge for the next president, who will be charged with determining which anti-terrorism policies of the Bush administration should be kept in place and which should be junked. The Pentagon has said that a small group of detainees at Guantanamo will be kept indefinitely, even if the Defense Department does not have enough evidence to formally charge them before military commissions.

Here is the Associated Press bulletin:

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) — A military jury gave Osama bin Laden’s driver a stunningly lenient sentence on Thursday, making him eligible for release in just five months despite the prosecutors’ request for a sentence tough enough to frighten terrorists around the globe.

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 30 years to life that prosecutors wanted. It now goes for mandatory review to a Pentagon official who can shorten the sentence but not extend it.

It remains unclear what will happen to Hamdan once his sentence is served, since the U.S. military has said it won’t release anyone who still represents a threat. The judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, said Hamdan would likely be eligible for the same administrative review process as other prisoners.

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 panel of six U.S. military officers, hand-picked by the Pentagon for the first U.S. war crimes trial in a half century.

The military has not said where Hamdan will serve his sentence, but the commander of the detention center, Navy Rear Adm. David Thomas, said last week that convicted prisoners will be held apart from the general detainee population at the isolated U.S. 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.”

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