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Justice at Gitmo

Releasing Bin Laden's former driver after he has served his time is the right thing. It's also smart policy.

August 12, 2008

With credit for time served at Guantanamo Bay, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the onetime driver for Osama bin Laden who was convicted last week of material support for terrorism, could be a free man in January. But not if the Bush administration asserts the right to continue holding him for the duration of the so-called war on terror. Having touted the fairness of the military commission system at Guantanamo, the administration should honor its rulings. That means releasing Hamdan.

An announcement by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates that Hamdan will be repatriated to Yemen is the only appropriate response to the six-member military jury's mixed verdict: guilty on the material-support charge but innocent on the more serious charge of conspiracy. Simple justice is a sufficient reason for releasing Hamdan, but doing so would have the additional advantage of preventing further erosion of the image of the United States abroad. Ironically, the fact that Hamdan's trial was not a kangaroo court will increase the embarrassment for the U.S. if the administration acts as if it never took place.

Continuing to detain Hamdan despite the results of his trial also would make it harder for the United States to trumpet future convictions under the military commission system -- including those of "high value" detainees such as alleged 9/11 plotter Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, for whom the government is expected to seek the death penalty. As Times reporter David Savage has pointed out, even human rights activists critical of the military commission system have praised the jurors in Hamdan's case for their conscientiousness. The goodwill engendered by the jury's careful and nuanced verdict will be squandered if the administration insists on holding Hamdan after he has served his sentence.

If the administration is wise, it will not only honor the verdict in this case, but will announce that it will free any detainee convicted by a military commission at the end of his sentence. Such a policy would be fair, and it also would provide an incentive for cooperation to Guantanamo detainees who did participate in acts of terrorism. Without the possibility of a meaningful reduced sentence, potential witnesses would be less likely to implicate higher-ups.

The Bush administration has made a mess out of Guantanamo in so many ways that its image -- and that of the United States -- may seem beyond redemption in the eyes of the world. Releasing Hamdan after he has served his time would undo some of the damage.

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