A Guantanamo jury has recommended a 14-year sentence for an al Qaida cook, though he could be released much sooner under a plea bargain that will limit the time he spends in prison.
Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi of Sudan pleaded guilty last month to supporting terrorism, making him only the fourth Guantanamo detainee to be convicted since the prison, which has held nearly 800 men, was opened in 2002.
The jury of 10 US military officers was not told about the sentence limit in the plea agreement. If it is less than 14 years, the jury’s sentence will only be applied if al-Qosi does something to break the deal, said Navy Captain David Iglesias, a spokesman for military prosecutors.
Military officials say al-Qosi’s actual sentence would not be disclosed publicly until it was reviewed by a Pentagon official known as the tribunals’ convening authority, a process that could take several weeks.
Critics said the case’s handling dashed hopes that the offshore tribunal system would be more transparent under President Barack Obama.
“To find out that the first conviction under the Obama administration is accompanied by a secret plea agreement, coupled with a dummy sentence, it’s really troubling,” said Andrea Prasow, a lawyer observing the hearings for Human Rights Watch. “I think this proceeding was a farce.”
It is not yet clear where al-Qosi might be held. Judge Nancy Paul, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, said officials would have 60 days after sentencing to determine that.
She told jurors they could sentence al-Qosi to between 12 and 15 years in prison – a range that is reportedly well above the terms of the plea bargain. She said the detainee would not receive credit for the eight years and seven months he already has spent in confinement.
Iglesias said the recommended sentencing range was determined in discussions between attorneys for al-Qosi and the convening authority, retired Vice Admiral Bruce MacDonald, a former Navy judge advocate general with broad powers over the system for prosecuting terror suspects.
As part of the plea agreement, the 50-year-old detainee signed a statement declaring that he followed Osama bin Laden after the al Qaida leader’s expulsion from Sudan in 1996 and continued working for him in Afghanistan.
Al-Qosi said he learned after they happened that al Qaida was behind the US Embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998 and the 9/11 attack on the United States, but he was not involved in their planning.
He was arrested in Pakistan after fleeing the al Qaida hideout at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, during the US-led invasion. He was among the first prisoners taken to Guantanamo.
The only witness for the prosecution at yesterday’s sentencing hearing, al Qaida expert Robert McFadden, testified that only the most loyal followers of bin Laden would be allowed close enough to become a cook or driver.
“Trust is the major factor,” said McFadden, an agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
In a closing prosecution statement to jurors, Marine Captain Seamus Quinn said it was the support of people like al-Qosi that made al Qaida possible.
“It would be an insult to Mr al-Qosi and to our intelligence to think he was nothing more than running bin Laden’s kitchen,” said Quinn, who urged the panel to impose a 15-year sentence.
Defence attorneys presented videotapes of interviews with al-Qosi’s relatives. The man’s father, Ahmed al-Qosi, said his son socialised with Christians as a youth at an Italian school and said that “our spirits would be much happier” if he was returned to Sudan.
A defence lawyer, Army Maj. Todd Pierce, said that upon repatriation al-Qosi would enter a rehabilitation program run by Sudan’s intelligence service that assigns extremists to moderate mosques and employs informants to track their behaviour. He said the program was 85% effective and none of the nine men sent back to Sudan from Guantanamo have engaged in hostilities against the United States.
Al-Qosi’s lawyers said he was little more than a menial worker to al Qaida’s senior leadership.
“Do you think they pulled off these horrible attacks by blabbing about it to their cooks?” defence attorney Paul Reichler said.
Al-Qosi avoided a possible life sentence at trial by pleading guilty on July 7 to one count each of providing material support for terrorism and conspiracy.
The Arabic-language news channel al Arabiya, citing two unidentified sources, reported recently that the secret agreement calls for al-Qosi to serve an additional two years at most and return to Sudan afterward.
Prosecutors have pledged to let al-Qosi serve any sentence in a communal-living section of the Guantanamo prison reserved for the most co-operative detainees. That condition sparked an internal dispute because military policy calls for convicts to be held apart from other inmates.
For now there is only one convict at Guantanamo, al Qaida media chief Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, who was sentenced in 2008 to life in prison.
Paul, the judge, said she was troubled that authorities had not developed written guidelines for the handling of convicted detainees even though another trial is under way for Omar Khadr, a young Canadian accused of killing a US soldier with a grenade in Afghanistan in 2002. Opening arguments are expected in that case Thursday.
The military trials established by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attack also yielded convictions of bin Laden driver Salim Hamdan and Australian David Hicks. Both have already served their sentences and returned home.
The US Supreme Court in 2006 struck down one version of the military trials, known as commissions, before Congress and the Bush administration came up with new trial rules.
Obama revised them further to extend more legal protections to detainees, but human rights groups say the system is still unfair and prosecutions should be held in US civilian courts instead.