MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. military tribunal at Guantanamo sentenced Osama bin Laden's media secretary to life in prison on Monday after convicting him of conspiring with al Qaeda, soliciting murder and providing material support for terrorism.
Yemeni prisoner Ali Hamza al Bahlul was the second man to be convicted by a jury in the war crimes court at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The jury of nine U.S. military officers reached their verdict on Friday after a weeklong trial in which the defendant and his lawyer refused to participate,
Bahlul, who is about 39, broke his silence at his sentencing hearing and delivered a speech praising bin Laden and predicting his own conviction would strengthen al Qaeda's fight against the United States, a military officer involved in the trial said.
Bahlul waved a paper airplane and read the jurors a poem he had written in praise of the Sept. 11 attacks, the officer said.
FBI interrogators testified that Bahlul scripted the videotaped wills of two Sept. 11 hijackers and boasted of making a two-hour al Qaeda commercial designed to recruit suicide bombers.
The recruitment video was filled with bloody images of violence against Muslims and portrayed the attack on the USS Cole as part of "The Solution." It praised the suicide bombers who drove a boat full of explosives into the side of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000, killing 17 American sailors.
Jurors agreed the recruitment video was a solicitation to commit murder.
The government's evidence in the special tribunal went unchallenged during the trial. Bahlul was not allowed to act as his own attorney and tried to fire the U.S. military lawyer he considers an enemy. The lawyer, Air Force Maj. David Frakt, said it "goes against all my training and instincts," but honored Bahlul's request not to put on any defense or question witnesses.
He sat mutely as an FBI agent who interrogated Bahlul in early 2002 at Camp X-Ray, the chain-link cages where Guantanamo captives were held for the first four months of the detention operation, described it as a "very comfortable" place where no one abused or even raised his voice at a detainee.
Bahlul was not accused of taking part in attacks or of having advanced knowledge of any. But jurors agreed he joined al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 1999, acted as bin Laden's media director until his capture in late 2001, and tried unsuccessfully to set up a satellite link so the al Qaeda leader could watch live news coverage as the Sept. 11 attacks were carried out.
Bahlul, one of about 255 men still held at Guantanamo, is only the second to receive a full trial in the tribunals created by the Bush administration to prosecute foreign captives on terrorism charges outside the regular U.S. and military courts. One other captive avoided trial by pleading guilty.
Only one more trial is scheduled before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office in January, a case against a young Afghan accused of throwing a grenade that wounded two U.S. soldiers and their interpreter.
A Guantanamo judge threw out key prosecution evidence in that case last week, ruling defendant Mohammed Jawad's confession to Afghan police had been obtained through torture. The judge is still considering a defense request to drop the charges entirely.
"These tribunals have unfortunately not fared well as far as America's image goes," said Vijay Padmanabhan, a former U.S. State Department attorney with responsibility for detainee affairs.
Allegations of mistreatment, the use of secret evidence and the perception that the tribunal rules are unfair have worked to overshadow the U.S. goal of demonstrating that al Qaeda is a criminal group whose members committed atrocities, he said.
The next president will have to "recalibrate the entire process where the goal is not just getting guilty convictions," said Padmanabhan, who left government service earlier this year to teach at Cardozo School of Law in New York.
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