- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) | A military jury gave Osama bin Laden’s driver a stunningly lenient sentence 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.”

Earlier, Hamdan pleaded with the jury for leniency and admitted he drove bin Laden around Afghanistan at the time of the 2001 attacks, but said he took the job without knowing the al Qaeda leader was a terrorist. It came as “a big shock,” he said, when he learned bin Laden was responsible for the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

Still, he kept the job, Hamdan said - he needed the money.

“It’s true there are work opportunities in Yemen, but not at the level I needed after I got married and not to the level of ambitions that I had in my future,” said Hamdan, who has a fourth-grade education.

Reading a prepared statement in Arabic, he said he had a “relationship of respect” with bin Laden, as would any other driver in the al Qaeda motor pool.

Hamdan was captured at a roadblock in southern Afghanistan in November 2001 and taken to Guantanamo Bay in May 2002.

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