A divided appeals court on Friday struck down the conspiracy conviction of a top-level Guantanamo Bay detainee, in another blow to the U.S. military commission system.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in its 2-1 decision that conspiracy was not a war crime for which Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman al Bahlul could be tried by a military commission.
Bahlul served as a personal assistant to Osama bin Laden, produced propaganda videos for al Qaeda and assisted with preparations for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Three months after 9/11, Bahlul was captured in Pakistan and transferred to the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Military prosecutors charged him with conspiracy to commit war crimes, providing material support for terrorism and solicitation of others to commit war crimes.
A military commission convicted him of all three crimes and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
In an earlier decision, the appeals court vacated Bahlul’s convictions on material support for terrorism and solicitation of others to commit war crimes, ruling that Congress had created those crimes after Bahlul had been apprehended and that trying him violated the Constitution’s prohibition against prosecutions of actions that were not illegal at the time they were undertaken.
The court considered the remaining conviction for conspiracy separately because it raised a number of constitutional issues, included whether Congress had exceeded its authority.
In its ruling, the court found that Congress had no constitutional authority to add conspiracy to the list of internationally recognized war crimes that could be tried by a military commission. The court’s majority cited precedents dating to the Civil War in rendering its opinion.
Bahlul, a native of Yemen, had been held in a separate section of the Guantanamo detention center reserved for detainees convicted of crimes; most detainees have never been charged with a crime, much less convicted. The Pentagon did not respond immediately to a question about whether he will be returned to the prison’s general population.
The vacating of Bahlul’s conviction was hailed by the advocacy group Human Rights First, which said in a statement that the appeals court decision “is just further proof that trying terrorism suspects in military commissions is a terrible idea.”
“With this ruling, it’s even clearer that federal courts are the right venue for these cases,” the group said. “It’s time to stop trying to force these cases into a costly, unnecessary and unreliable offshore military commission system, when we have a reliable and respected federal justice system here at home.”
The group noted that of the eight convictions in Guantanamo military commissions, four have been fully reversed.