The verdict in the first war crimes trial at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is in: One poorly educated Yemeni, with an impish sense of humor and two little girls, is guilty of supporting terrorism by driving Osama bin Laden. With credit for time served, the sentence is no more than five months. But the other, perhaps more important verdict — the judgment on the Bush administration’s military commission system — is still out.
With the decision from a panel of military officers last week, the Pentagon accomplished what once seemed nearly impossible. It completed a trial in a system that has faced a series of challenges since its birth in the unsettled months after the 2001 attacks.
The verdict and the five-and-a-half-year sentence may not have been as severe as the government had hoped for, but it was a green light for a tribunal that the Pentagon plans to use to prosecute as many as 80 detainees, including five men charged as the plotters and coordinators of the Sept. 11 attack. Nonetheless, the central question about the war crimes system remains unanswered after its first trial: Is it fair enough and open enough to meet Americans’ concept of justice?
Before the courtroom lights were out, there were doubts about whether the panel’s sentence would mean anything for the former bin Laden driver, Salim Hamdan. The Bush administration has long asserted that detainees at Guantánamo, even those who complete war crimes sentences or are acquitted, are enemy combatants who can be held indefinitely.
A Pentagon spokesman, Cmdr. Jeffrey D. Gordon, pointedly declined to make any promises after the short sentence, which surprised the military prosecutors. The morning of the verdict they had been pressing for at least 30 years, and they argued that a life sentence would have sent the right message to terrorists.
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