An officer who served on the Guantánamo Bay military jury that convicted Salim Hamdan of providing material support for terrorism and sentenced to five months imprisonment on top of 61 months he has already spent in confinement at the military base awaiting trial tells The Wall Street Journal that the evidence against Osama bin Laden’s former driver “simply didn’t support prosecutors’ depiction of a hard-core al Qaeda terrorist who hates America and its way of life” and that “along the spectrum” of terrorist activity, Hamdan fell on the “less significant end.”

According to The Journal, this juror also insisted that the sentence was not meant as a “message to the Bush administration or comment on its military commission system,” but instead reflected American principles on “the sanctity of human rights.”

Even as it termed the verdict and sentence as “thoughtful and fair – or as fair as a hopelessly flawed system could hope to produce,” The Washington Post characterized it as “both vindication and defeat for the administration” and calls for his release “before President Bush leaves office”:

The matter emerged as vindication, in the sense that the commission in this case proved not to be the kangaroo court many critics once feared and predicted; defeat, in that even military jurors and a military judge in no way bought the administration’s assertion that Mr. Hamdan was a hardened al-Qaeda operative deserving of life imprisonment. …

That Mr. Hamdan obtained such a measured and appropriate result is testament to the integrity of the participants in this matter, particularly the jurors and the judge.

But The New York Times didn’t see it that way at all. An editorial, “Guilty as Ordered,” sarcastically begins, “Now that was a real nail-biter” and complains that the court was “designed by the White House and its Congressional enablers to guarantee convictions … using evidence obtained by torture and secret evidence as desired”:  

The rules of justice on Guantánamo are so stacked against defendants that the only surprise was that Mr. Hamdan was actually acquitted on the more serious count of conspiring (it was unclear with whom) to kill Americans during the invasion of Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001. …

We are not arguing that the United States should condone terrorism or those who support it, or that the guilty should not be punished severely. But in a democracy, trials must be governed by fair rules, and judges must be guided by the law and the evidence, not pressure from the government. The military commission system, which falls far short of these standards, is a stain on the United States.

For its part, The Journal took exception to The Times’ reaction to the trial’s outcome, and posited the rhetorical question, “Could anything happen at Guantanamo that isn’t ‘a stunning rebuke’ or ‘an embarrassing blow’ to the Bush Administration?”:

If anything, Hamdan’s sentence again validates the fairness and due-process safeguards embedded in the system. The jury was independent and conscientious in its deliberations  to a fault, perhaps. Hamdan, after all, was far from the hapless chauffeur his white-shoe lawyers portrayed. During his trial, the prosecution played a 1998 video that showed Hamdan guarding bin Laden with a machine gun. Presumably al Qaeda’s leader didn’t hang around with armed personnel he didn’t trust.

Hamdan could be held indefinitely as an enemy combatant, but the political explosion that option would touch off makes it all but untenable. In five months, he is likely to be repatriated to Yemen. What’s bizarre is that even the release of a member of al Qaeda won’t convince the anti-antiterror movement of the legitimacy of military commissions.

And in a second editorial about the Hamdan trial, The Times retorted that “we have found ourselves scratching our heads in anguished confusion about what, exactly, President Bush is trying to achieve by trashing the Constitution at Guantánamo Bay”:

For years, Mr. Bush and his supporters have been telling the world that it is necessary to hold prisoners without charges, to abuse them in ways most civilized nations consider torture, and to deny them basic human rights because of the serious threat they pose to America. …

The administration considered Mr. Hamdan such a priority that it took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, insisting Mr. Bush had the power to hold anyone he deemed an enemy combatant for as long as he wanted under any conditions he wanted. Mr. Hamdan’s trial was the first by a military commission in Guantánamo. …

Mr. Hamdan, however, is hardly a high value target. The comedian Stephen Colbert captured the absurdity of the proceedings perfectly on Thursday night when he called the trial “the most historic session of traffic court ever.”

These enemy combatants and terrorists are being represented pro bono by some of the top white shoe firms in the US, so it is patently dishonest for The Times to portray the military tribunal as a kangaroo court. If you’ve ever been to traffic court – everyone’s presumed guilty and no one is proven innocent, because the judge always accepts the police officer’s testimony while dismissing the defendant’s – you know what a kangaroo court is really like. The Stiletto is sure Hamdan would have gotten a stiffer sentence in traffic court, so let’s dispense with this whole military tribunal rigmarole and just move the remaining proceedings to traffic court.  

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog, chosen an Official Honoree in the Political Blogs category by the judges of the 12th Annual Webby Awards (the Oscars of the online universe) along with CNN Political Ticker, Swampland (Time magazine) and The Caucus (The New York Times).

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