Osama bin Laden's former driver was sentenced on Thursday to five and a half years in prison at the conclusion of the first trial of a terror suspect by special military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The sentence is a double-edged sword for the Bush administration, which had hoped a harsh sentence in the Hamdan case would send a stern message to would-be Al-Qaeda sympathizers around the world. But the five-year sentence also underscores the fairness of the particular military panel in the Hamdan case, analysts say.
The sentence was handed down by a panel of six military officers, hand-picked by the Pentagon, who a day earlier rejected US government arguments that Mr. Hamdan was a terrorist conspirator.
Instead, the panel convicted Hamdan of providing material support to Al-Qaeda by continuing to serve as a driver and body guard to Bin Laden – even after he learned the group was involved in terrorism.
The panel announced the sentence after hearing testimony and argument from both prosecutors and defense lawyers. Mr. Hamdan read a statement during the hearing apologizing to the victims of the 9-11 attacks.
"I don't know what could be given or presented to these innocent people who were killed in the US," Hamdan said, according to the Associated Press. "I personally present my apologies to them if anything what I did have caused them pain."
Prosecutors had asked the panel to sentence Hamdan to at least 30 years in prison. Prosecutor John Murphy was quoted by the Associated Press as urging the panel to deliver a sentence that would keep American society safe from Hamdan.
The panel – the first US war crimes tribunal since World War II – was empowered to hand down a sentence anywhere from no punishment to life in prison. Military Judge Keith Allred, a Navy Captain, told the panel they could consider Hamdan's seven years in US detention and that he is the sole supporter of his wife and two children.
The five-year sentence raised immediate questions about whether the US government would make good on repeated suggestions that even if Hamdan was acquitted of all charges he could still be held at Guantanamo as an unlawful enemy combatant until the end of the war on terror.
"It is not clear that the length of sentence is all that meaningful to Mr. Hamdan. It is not as though whenever his sentence has been served he is going to be leaving there," says Madeline Morris, director of Duke Law School's Guantanamo Defense Clinic.
Others say the government would be ill-advised to refuse to release Hamdan after he's served his sentence. "To the extent you go to the trouble of looking at specific offenses committed by a particular enemy combatant, you adjudicate, you prosecute, and you obtain the result, then you have to live with the consequences," says David Rifkin, a Washington lawyer and supporter of the Bush administration's military commission effort. "Whatever the sentence is once he has finished serving it, he should be released."
Mr. Rifkin said the panel's sentencing decision will make it harder for critics to suggest the commission process is unfair. He admitted he was "surprised" by the five-year sentence, "but I wasn't there to listen to the evidence."
Linda Malone, director of the Human Rights and National Security Law Program at William and Mary Law School, said the administration's prior position on holding enemy combatants raises important questions.
"The overriding problem is that the Bush administration has said that [Hamdan] will be held until the war on terror is over, regardless of what sentence he gets," Professor Malone says. "It is almost Kafkaesque that regardless of what the sentence might be and whatever credit he is given [for his prior detention], they are saying they are going to hold him until the war ends – and everyone knows that is virtually limitless."
Following the announcement of his sentence, Hamdan spoke to the panel, thanking them and, once again, apologizing. "I want to apologize one more time to all the members and I would like to thank you for what you have done for me," he said, according to the Associated Press.
Judge Allred then told Hamdan: "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."
Hamdan responded: "God willing."