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Bin Laden's driver is going home

Salim Ahmed Hamdan of Yemen was jailed for more than five years at Guantanamo.

November 25, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Williams is a Times staff writer.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's onetime driver and the first of only two terrorism suspects convicted at Guantanamo Bay, is being transferred from the offshore prison to his Yemeni homeland, a government lawyer familiar with the case said Monday.

Hamdan, who is about 40, was found guilty of material support for terrorism by a six-member military jury in August.

He was acquitted of the more serious charge of conspiracy and sentenced to just five months longer than the five-plus years he had served, mostly in maximum security isolation, at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

The disclosure that Hamdan was already off the base or would be within hours signaled that the Bush administration had conceded its effort to severely punish the $200-a-month Al Qaeda driver had failed.

Bush administration officials sought and were denied reconsideration of Hamdan's 66-month sentence after trial by the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions. Prosecutors deemed the term too lenient. They had asked that Hamdan serve 30 years to life.

Government lawyers had cast him as one of those who helped plot and execute the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

During Hamdan's three-week trial, his defense lawyers elicited testimony portraying the slight, soft-spoken defendant as a hired hand with a fourth-grade education, a man who drove Bin Laden and at times acted as a bodyguard but was excluded from the terrorist group's inner circle.

About 100 of the 250 prisoners still at Guantanamo are Yemenis. Many of them are expected to be sent home once President Bush leaves office and the Pentagon is compelled to dismantle the prison and the interrogation and prosecution operations that have drawn international condemnation.

A lawyer involved in the commissions said he regarded the transfer of Hamdan as the "grease" needed to launch the repatriation of Yemenis after years of diplomatic standoff between the U.S. and Yemeni governments.

Neither the spokeswoman for the task force that operates the detention facilities, Navy Cmdr. Pauline A. Storum, nor commissions spokesman Joseph DellaVedova, responded to requests for confirmation of Hamdan's transfer.

Pentagon officials routinely refuse to discuss detainee movements, claiming security concerns.

The Yemeni news agency, SABA, reported from the capital Sanaa that "well-informed sources said on Monday that U.S. authorities would extradite Salim Hamdan to Yemen in the coming few days."

Monday marked exactly seven years since Hamdan was captured at a roadblock near Kandahar, Afghanistan, as he returned from taking his wife and a daughter to Pakistan to escape the bombardment of suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.

He was held by U.S.-led Afghan fighters, then by clandestine U.S. government agents for two months before he was sent to Guantanamo.

Hamdan had cooperated with his captors while in Afghanistan, testimony during his trial indicated. Information thought to have led to his reduced sentence and acquittal on the conspiracy charge was disclosed to the military judge and jury during a closed session.

Hamdan has a wife and two daughters in Yemen.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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