Salim Hamdan’s sentence at Guantánamo: a military juror speaks


Salim HamdanIn the Wall Street Journal, Jess Bravin scored a media coup by securing the first interview with one of the jurors in the trial by Military Commission of Salim Hamdan, who decided, after the contentious two-week trial, that, although Hamdan was guilty of providing material support for terrorism, he was not guilty of the graver crime of conspiracy. Accordingly, the jury gave him a sentence of just five and a half years — leaving him just five months to serve, after taking into account time already served — which came as a genuine shock to all parties.

Speaking anonymously, the juror began by explaining, as Bravin put it, that the jury “intended no message to the Bush administration or comment on its military commission system.” Instead, he said, “the panel looked at the evidence against Salim Hamdan and found it simply didn’t support prosecutors’ depiction of a hard-core al-Qaeda terrorist who hates America and its way of life.”

“Salim Hamdan was working for a bad organization and he knew that,” the juror said. He added, however, that he and his fellow jurors “came to view him like other young people who get mixed up in criminal organizations because they are ignorant or lack other opportunities, rather than through a deep-seated ideology.”

Running through Hamdan’s story, as revealed during the trial, Bravin noted that his job “principally involved driving Mr. bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures around Afghanistan,” and that he sometimes carried weapons and radios. He added that, although Hamdan “initially offered evasive and deceptive answers,” he “soon became cooperative and provided information to US interrogators about the al-Qaeda organization,” and also noted that prosecutors had “put on a slew of witnesses including some of its top counter-terrorism agents, mockups of surface-to-air missiles it said were found in Mr. Hamdan’s car and video of his initial interrogations in 2001.”

The juror revealed that a full presentation of the issues was certainly required, as he and his fellow jurors “were barely, if at all, aware of the case’s historic background.” He added that, “after years of contentious debate over detainee treatment it was good to finally see prisoners handled through ‘an organized process’ rather than ‘an indiscriminate way,’” although he pointed out that the jurors found it “necessary to keep feelings about 9/11 and other al-Qaeda attacks from interfering with their judgment,” explaining, “I think we all had to reconcile that before we got on the plane to Guantánamo.”

In addition, the juror noted, “From opening statement to sentencing argument, both the prosecution and defense were ‘very aggressive,’” but added that “[e]ach side played the part [they] expected.” Specifically, he explained, “The defense would say the accused made the mistake of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” while “the prosecutors would give the image of him being a hardened terrorist.” Crucially, in accepting the defense’s portrayal of Hamdan as nothing more than a driver, the juror explained that “it came down to the evidence that we were allowed to see,” and, specifically, the fact that “[n]o evidence suggested Mr. Hamdan had any role in planning or organizing any terror attacks.”

The juror also explained that “Hamdan’s demeanor in court made an impression.” “He looked very mild mannered,” the juror said, adding that Hamdan’s unsworn statement, before the jury began considering the evidence, in which he “apologized to any who were harmed by his acts,” also affected their verdict. Although it was possible that this was “an effort to manipulate the jury,” the juror proceeded to suggest that Hamdan’s behavior after the sentence was announced — when he “stood and apologized again, and thanked the jury and judge” — confirmed the jurors’ opinion. “I thought it was unusual considering the crimes he was accused of,” he explained. “The reality is: he didn’t have to get up at all. He could have just sat there.”

Speaking about the jury’s response to prosecutor John Murphy’s request for a sentence that was “so significant that it forecloses any possibility that he renews his ties with terrorism,” the juror explained that he and his colleagues “didn’t accept the premise. Mr. Hamdan may have been guilty, but ‘where was his act along the spectrum’ of things one could do in support of terrorism?” It was, he said, “toward the less significant end.” He added that the prosecution’s argument was unacceptable “unless you can say, ‘We should have hanged him,’” and wondered if the administration was “going to make that same statement of every individual” captured by the United States.

As Bravin described it, the juror than stated, in a comment that was, however inadvertently, in opposition to the position taken by the administration since 9/11, that “American principles call for treating even enemies justly,” explaining that this was because “we adhere to the Geneva Convention and we try to set the standards with the sanctity of human rights.”

At the end of the interview, Bravin explained that the juror “seemed surprised to hear” that the government had the option of continuing to imprison Hamdan, after his sentence comes to an end, on the grounds that he remains a threat, “but said that continuing to hold Mr. Hamdan past his sentence was acceptable if officials so concluded.” “You have to trust the government to a certain degree,” he suggested, adding, “I would take their word for it, because, yes, I do believe in the government.” And finally, in response to a question from Bravin regarding the time when Hamdan’s sentence runs out — roughly when President Bush leaves office — the juror responded to the notion that “some trial observers wondered if the jury intended any message by selecting that date,” with apparent amusement, stating of the jury’s decision, “People probably are trying to read too much into it.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

One Response

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    I just discovered that NPR interviewed another member of the jury, Lt. Col. Patrick [last name withheld], who also made some interesting points. For a recording and a transcript, visit:

    These, I thought, were some of the key points made by this second juror:

    “This was kind of like using the hand grenade on the horsefly. If you throw the book at this guy, then what do you do about — there are plenty of guys down there that are really bad guys that need to have the book thrown at them, but if you do a 30 [year] minimum [sentence], which was the prosecution’s request, and they would have preferred life, where do you step up from that?”

    “In none of the evidence presented did you ever see him brandishing a weapon at all. Even when he was captured and the evidence all showed that there was an AK-47 right there in the front seat, the guys behind him and in front of him deployed weapons, he bailed out of the car and ran.”

    In response to NPR asking the juror his feelings about the fact that “Hamdan is still classified as an unlawful combatant by the Bush administration, and as such could be detained indefinitely in spite of his short sentence. Lt. Col. Patrick said that the jury would be extremely annoyed if that happened. After all, he said, what did we come down here for?”

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Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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