GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - The Associated Press
A prisoner convicted at the first Guantanamo war crimes trial raised his hands in elation as he left the American military courtroom with a surprisingly light sentence that makes him eligible for release in less than five months.
The victory for Salim Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden, was a rebuke to Pentagon prosecutors who portrayed him as a hardened al-Qaeda warrior and sought a sentence of 30 years to life in prison.
The U.S. military jury sentenced the Yemeni prisoner Thursday to just 5½ years in prison, including five years and a month already served at Guantanamo Bay. U.S. authorities insist they could still hold him indefinitely without charge, but defense lawyers and human rights groups say the military will face pressure to release him at the end of his sentence.
The judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, called Hamdan a "small player," and the jury apparently agreed, rejecting the recommendation of prosecutors who said even a life sentence would be fitting in order to send an example to would-be terrorists.
"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," Allred told Hamdan at the close of the hearing.
The prisoner, dressed in a charcoal sports coat and white robe, responded: "God willing."
�Slap in the face':
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 five-man, one-woman jury, all military officers picked by the Pentagon for the first U.S. war crimes trial in a half-century.
Hamdan raised both hands in the air and waved as he left the courtroom, saying "bye, bye everybody" in English.
"What ultimately happened in spite of the system was justice," said civilian defense attorney Charles Swift, who hugged Hamdan after the jurors left the courtroom.
The sentence was a "slap in the face" to the Bush administration and its detention policies, said David Remes, a Washington lawyer who represents 15 Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo.
"They chose to make this a test case. But they never imagined that it would result in such a stunning rebuff," he said.
The chief defense counsel for the Guantanamo tribunals, Army Col. Steve David, said the government failed in its strategy to link Hamdan to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The government attempted to inflame the emotions of the panel," he said. "It didn't work."
"Asking for 30 years to life, not only was ill-advised and wholly inappropriate, but was also soundly rejected by the panel," David said.
Allred said Hamdan, who is from Yemen, would likely be eligible for release through the same administrative review process as other Guantanamo prisoners.
Defense lawyers said Hamdan will have finished his sentence in four months and 22 days.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, said he could not speculate whether Hamdan would be released later this year or remain imprisoned as an "enemy combatant."
"I can reassure you that the Defense Department is hard at work on this issue," he said.
The military has not said where Hamdan will serve his sentence. His lawyers protested in court Thursday that Hamdan, as a convict, already had been moved to an empty wing of his prison at the isolated U.S. military base in southeast Cuba.While being convicted of supporting terrorism, Hamdan was acquitted of providing missiles to al-Qaeda and knowing his work would be used for terrorism. He also was cleared of being part of al-Qaeda's conspiracy to attack the United States - the most serious charges he faced.