A military panel at the Guantanamo naval base convicted a former Qaida propaganda chief of terrorism charges on Monday and sentenced him to life in prison, giving the Bush administration a second conviction in a war-crimes trial there.
But the conviction of the detainee, Ali Hamza al Bahlul, was a measured victory for the government, which has been struggling for seven years to prove the effectiveness of its military commission system for trying terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The guilty verdict had been expected because Bahlul, a Yemeni who prosecutors said was a close aide to Osama bin Laden, did not offer any defense. Saying he did not accept the authority of the tribunal, he insisted that his lawyer remain mute in a weeklong trial that drew little attention.
The Pentagon’s response to the verdict was muted. “Al Bahlul received a full and fair trial,” said a spokesman, Cmdr. Jeffrey D. Gordon.
The conviction did not appear likely to affect the contentious debate about the use of military tribunals, said Glenn M. Sulmasy, a national security law specialist at the Coast Guard Academy. “This was a victory for the government,” Sulmasy said, “but it may not have positive impact because of the erosion of support and legitimacy for the commission process.”
Bahlul was convicted of conspiracy, solicitation to commit murder, providing material support for terrorism and other charges. Prosecutors said he made a recruiting film, “The Destruction of the American Destroyer USS Cole,” which described the 2000 attack that killed 17 sailors on the ship in the Yemeni port of Aden.
The panel of military officers deliberated for less than an hour on the sentence Monday afternoon, after announcing its guilty verdict in the morning. The only other detainee convicted after a Guantanamo trial, Salim Hamdan, a former driver for bin Laden, is set to complete his five-month sentence next month, after a military judge gave him credit for more than five years awaiting trial.
Last year, an Australian detainee, David Hicks, pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorism in exchange for a nine-month sentence.
Bahlul’s trial came after a series of new challenges to the Pentagon’s prosecution efforts. Last week, a military judge undercut the case against another detainee, Mohammed Jawad, by barring the use of his confession to an attack on American soldiers. The judge ruled that it had been obtained through torture by Afghan officials.
Jawad’s case has drawn wide notice because he was a teenager when he was detained in Afghanistan in 2002. His trial, scheduled Jan. 5, is the only other war-crimes trial expected before President Bush leaves office. The trial of Omar Khadr, a Canadian who was also detained as a teenager, is scheduled for Jan. 26, six days after the start of a new administration.
Pentagon officials have pressed to get the commission system moving quickly, filing charges against nearly two dozen detainees over the last year and expanding the staffs of military lawyers prosecuting and defending the cases.