GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - If Osama bin Laden’s driver is convicted on terrorism charges as Guantanamo’s first U.S. war crimes trial ends next week, he will be jailed separately from the rest of the prisoners, the head of the detention operation said on Saturday.
Still to be disclosed is how the military will do that without subjecting defendant Salim Hamdan to potentially decades of extreme isolation.
The jury of six U.S. military officers is scheduled to begin deliberating their verdict after the lawyers give closing arguments on Monday at the U.S. naval base in southeast Cuba.
If Hamdan is convicted on charges of conspiring with al Qaeda and providing material support for terrorism, the jury could sentence him to no further detention at all, life in prison, or anything in between.
Policy requires that as a war crimes convict, he would be held separately from the other 265 Guantanamo detainees whom the United States classifies as “unlawful enemy combatants,” said Rear Adm. Dave Thomas, commander of the detention camp.
“Guilty or convicted or whatever, they would be housed in a different facility,” Thomas told journalists who toured the prison camps on Saturday. “They would be held separate from the other detainees.”
Hamdan would be the only current Guantanamo prisoner convicted of a crime. Camp officers say none are held in solitary confinement and that even those in the maximum-security, one-man cells can chat freely through the walls or during outdoor recreation periods with other captives in adjoining pens.
Asked how Hamdan could be separated but not isolated, Thomas replied: “It’s a great question. I‘m not faced with it yet. We’ve thought that through and we have plans to accommodate, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”
Hamdan acknowledges he was one of bin Laden’s drivers in Afghanistan but denies joining al Qaeda or participating in its attacks. Prosecutors say he pledged allegiance to bin Laden, helped him elude U.S. forces and had two missiles in his car when captured in Afghanistan in November 2001.
If he is convicted, a sentencing hearing would be held immediately with witnesses presenting testimony about mitigating or aggravating factors.
Defence lawyers will ask that he be given three days’ credit for time served for every day he has been held at Guantanamo, said deputy chief defence counsel Michael Berrigan.
They will also argue that he deserves leniency since he has provided interrogators with valuable information and because of what Berrigan described as a low level of culpability.
Hamdan is accused of being part of a broad al Qaeda conspiracy responsible for the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa, the 2000 attack on the warship USS Cole in Yemen and the September 11 attacks, but there was no trial evidence he had direct involvement or prior knowledge of any of those.
Prosecutors plan to call victims of some of the attacks or their relatives to testify at the sentencing hearing if Hamdan is convicted, said the chief prosecutor, Army Col. Lawrence Morris.
Hamdan’s trial would be the first completed in the controversial tribunals created by the Bush administration to prosecute non-U.S. citizens on terrorism charges outside the regular civilian and military courts.
Since the United States began sending captives to Guantanamo in January 2002, only one prisoner has been convicted of a crime. Australian David Hicks averted trial by pleading guilty in March 2007 to a charge of providing material support for terrorism.
He was held alone in a separate section of the camp for about two months before being sent to Australia to finish his nine-month sentence. Trial officials said they did not know if there had been any discussion with the Yemeni government about sending Hamdan home to serve any potential sentence.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham