US NAVAL BASE AT GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba (AFP) — A military jury on Thursday sentenced terrorist chief Osama bin Laden's ex-driver, Salim Hamdan, to 66 months in prison, far less than the 30 years prosecutors sought.
Taking into account time Hamdan has already served, the sentence for his conviction on charges of supporting terrorism only added an additional five months -- although the Pentagon has indicated it has no plans to free him.
"It is my duty as president (of the jury) to inform you that this military commission sentences you to be confined for 66 months," one of the six military jurors told the court.
The judge had earlier ruled that Hamdan would be given credit for five years and about one month spent at the Guantanamo prison since 2003, when he was initially charged under the tribunal system.
The Yemen native did not receive credit for time spent behind bars before he was charged in 2003 and under US detention.
Shortly before the sentence, Hamdan expressed sorrow and apologized over innocents killed -- an apparent reference to the September 11, 2001 terrorist strikes by bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network -- and appealed for leniency.
"It was a sorry or sad thing to see innocent people killed," Salim Hamdan said in Arabic, translated by an interpreter. "I personally present my apologies to them if anything what I did have caused them pain."
Prosecutors had insisted that he remained a dangerous man and said he should get at least 30 years behind bars for his work for bin Laden, who remains at large nearly seven years after the worst terrorist strikes on US soil.
"Do justice for all the victims of material support for terrorism in this case," prosecutor John Murphy told the court.
Defense lawyers had suggested Hamdan should not be sentenced for more than three years and nine months after their client was found guilty on one charge of providing material support to Al-Qaeda.
The six military jurors began their deliberations on a sentence shortly after 2 pm (1800 GMT) in the first full trial before the controversial tribunals in Guantanamo set up to try suspects in the "war on terror."
The Navy officer presiding over the case, Keith Allred, advised the jurors that despite photos shown by prosecutors of Al-Qaeda terror attacks, they should keep in mind that Hamdan was not found responsible for those attacks and was found guilty only for having provided assistance to the terror group.
Before the jury began to confer, defense lawyers said Hamdan posed no danger as a former driver, regretted his links to bin Laden and suggested he should be sentenced for no more than 45 months.
"He made a series of bad decisions," defense attorney Charles Swift said. "Looking back they are terrible decisions."
Swift argued that due to his client's alleged work with interrogators the United States had benefited more than Al-Qaeda had, stressing: "When we weigh his culpability, we must consider cooperation."
The sentencing hearing came after Hamdan was convicted Wednesday of providing support to Al-Qaeda, in the first US war crimes trial since World War II.
Wearing a white turban and tan coat as he stood at a table next to his defense lawyers, Hamdan appeared calm as he spoke. He said he had worked for bin Laden because he needed to support his family but had serious misgivings over time about his employer.
Hamdan and his lawyers sought leniency after he was cleared on more serious charges that he conspired and plotted attacks for Al-Qaeda, and pointed to the case of Australian David Hicks.
Hicks pleaded guilty last year in Guantanamo to a similar charge in a plea deal. He was given seven years, which was then suspended to nine months for time already served.
"And they have sentenced him (Hicks) to nine months and the term of his prison is over within his own country, and he is free with his family right now, with his children," Hamdan said.
But the judge later told the jurors to disregard any other case as they weigh a sentence.
Hamdan, aged around 40 and with a 4th-grade education, was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 and eventually moved to Guantanamo in 2002.
The US Defense Department has made clear that whatever his sentence, US authorities retain the right to keep him in prison for an indefinite period as an "unlawful enemy combatant."
Defense lawyers and rights advocates say the US government would come under intense international pressure to release Hamdan once he serves his sentence.
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