Guantánamo

Bin Laden video-maker gets life

BY CAROL ROSENBERG

crosenberg@MiamiHerald.com

A military jury Monday convicted Osama bin Laden's media secretary of war crimes for creating an al Qaeda recruiting video that prosecutors argued incited suicide bombers. Within hours, the jury sentenced him to life in prison.

The convict, Ali Hamza al Bahlul, about 40, responded by breaking his week-long boycott of the trial with a 50-minute anti-American monologue.

He declared his devotion to Allah, berated the United States for the plight of the Palestinians and, noting his election-eve conviction, announced that radical Islam's war with the West would persist with whoever succeeds President Bush.

''We have fought and we fight and will fight any government that governs America,'' said Bahlul. He waved a poem he wrote in Arabic in praise of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, <em>The Storm of the Airplanes.</em>

Until he was convicted, the Yemeni father of four had declined to mount a defense and sat silently, occasionally smiling at the mention of his handiwork.

The jury of nine Navy captains and colonels from the Army, Air Force and Marines had taken only four hours to find him guilty on all charges.

Their sentencing deliberations lasted only 45 minutes, less time than the prisoner in tan jumpsuit and sneakers took to rail at them.

No one testified during the no-contest trial that Bahlul, from Yemen's Red Sea region, ever fired a shot at Americans during his 1999-2001 tenure in Afghanistan.

Nor was there evidence that any of the 9/11 hijackers saw his video, "The Destruction of the American Destroyer USS Cole.''

But the Pentagon argued that Bahlul conspired with al Qaeda, supported terror and solicited murder by creating the two-hour video that spliced fiery bin Laden speeches with Muslim bloodshed and stock news footage of the aftermath of the 2000 suicide bombing of the $1 billion warship.

In all, prosecutors called 16 witnesses -- three former jihadists, prison camp interrogators, forensic experts and two victims of the USS Cole attack, notably the father of one of the 17 sailors killed on Oct. 12, 2000 off the coast of Yemen.

Two men came up alongside the warship in a vessel packed with explosives in Aden harbor, waved, then detonated themselves and their load.

''Our son and his 16 mates were minding their own business, refueling in a supposedly friendly harbor and weren't out to hurt anybody and were viciously attacked and murdered,'' said Gary Swenchonis Sr., his hands shaking and voice trembling after using a cane to reach the tribunal's witness stand.

His son, Gary Jr., 26, of Rockport, Texas, was a Navy petty officer and firefighter. The father said the video was especially troubling because it promoted ''propaganda, hate, violence'' -- values his family abhored.

''He was raised, in short, to respect all people of religious beliefs and that violence was wrong,'' Swenchonis said. "If you had to go to war, you went to war for your nation -- and you wore a uniform.''

The Yemeni watched from the defendant's table expressionless.

In seeking the maximum life sentence, the lead prosecutor, Army Maj. Dan Cowhig, called Bahlul's video "a virus that this man had released on the world.''

Swenchonis' father said all you have to do is surf the web to see it.

"The message that video sends every time it is played is blood, blood, destruction, destruction.' '' said the prosecutor, asking the jury to sentence Bahlul to life imprisonment.

''You can send another message every time this video is played,'' he said: "The maker of this message will make no more.''

Bahlul became only the second detainee among the 255 here ever convicted of war crimes at trial before the special terror court Bush ordered set up after the 9/11 attacks.

He will now join bin Laden's driver in a convict's corridor at the prison camps.

The driver, Salim Hamdan, also of Yemen, was convicted of supporting terror in August. A different jury sentenced him to time served plus the rest of 2008 in prison.

In contrast to Hamdan's clear contrition, Bahlul has for years rejected the authority of the U.S. military to judge him, and adopted a self-styled boycott.

The jury declined to discuss the case or their deliberations with reporters who had covered the trial. Six of the nine jurors had sentenced al Qaeda foot soldier David Hicks of Australia to the maximum in an earlier plea agreement.

Military Commissions decide cases by majority votes. In the Bahlul case, a minimum of six votes were required to find him guilty of each count, and seven to sentence him to life.

The war court's former chief prosecutor, retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis, a persistent critic of secrecy surrounding the process, noted that the United States had managed to complete only three men's cases before commissions: Hicks, who pleaded in exchange for his freedom; Hamdan, and Bahlul, whom he described as ''a dupe, a driver and default,'' because he refused to defend himself.

Then Davis declared the war court all but dead.

''I suspect that's the last of the military commissions,'' said Davis. "With the Bush administration in its final 80 days, I'm hopeful the next administration will put an end to this regrettable chapter in our nation's history and begin the process of restoring the nation's reputation.''

Davis' successor, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, said he would not bring any more cases to trial before the end of the year.

But he declared himself ''pleased with the verdict'' in the Bahlul case, and pleased with the findings, by the jurors who found the Yemeni guilty on all charges.

Morris said he planned to go forward with the Jan. 5 trial of Mohammed Jawad, a young Afghan accused of tossing a grenade that wounded two U.S. soldiers and their translator in an Afghan bazaar.

In a pre-trial hearing, Jawad's judge ruled his confession, obtained in a Kabul police station soon after his December 2002 arrest, was derived by torture at the hands of Afghan forces in Afghanistan.

His attorney, the same man assigned to the Bahlul case, Air Forces Reserve Maj. David Frakt, has declared the case unprosecutable -- echoing a recent ruling from the trial judge.

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