Salim Hamdan today pleaded with a military jury to spare him from a life in prison, saying that he worked as Osama bin Laden's driver only because he needed a job.
Hamdan, a Yemeni, was convicted by the six Pentagon-appointed jurors at the Guantanamo Bay trial of aiding terrorism by chauffeuring bin Laden around Afghanistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks. But Hamdan said he merely had a "relationship of respect" with bin Laden, as would any other employee.
"It's true there are work opportunities in Yemen, but not at the level I needed after I got married and not to the level of ambitions that I had in my future," he said, reading in Arabic from a prepared statement.
The five-man, one-woman jury found Hamdan guilty of aiding terrorism but acquitted him of conspiracy Wednesday at the first US war crimes trial since World War II.
Under tribunal rules, the jury imposes the sentence, not the judge. Their verdict does not have to be unanimous, and a review by a Pentagon legal official can reduce the sentence but not increase it.
The military judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, told jurors they could impose any sentence from life in prison to no punishment. He instructed jurors to take into account the nearly seven years Hamdan has spent in confinement and that he is the sole supporter of his wife and two children.
Allred, who has described Hamdan as a "small player," previously ruled he should receive five years of credit for time served at Guantanamo Bay since the Pentagon decided to charge him.
The tribunals' chief prosecutor, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, had said prosecutors would take the acquittal into account when recommending a sentence. But prosecutor John Murphy on Thursday urged the jury to make an example of Hamdan with a penalty of 30 years to life.
"You have found him guilty of offenses that have made our world extremely unsafe and dangerous," Murphy said. "The government asks you to deliver a sentence that will absolutely keep our society safe from him."
Defence attorneys urged leniency, reminding jurors that Hamdan was not convicted of any role al-Qaida's attacks. A psychiatrist hired by the defense told jurors that Hamdan has the potential to be rehabilitated.
"It is important the world recognize that this is justice and not revenge," said Charles Swift, one of Hamdan's civilian attorneys.
The verdict will be appealed automatically to a special military court in Washington. Hamdan can then appeal to U.S. civilian courts as well.
Defence lawyers say Hamdan's rights were denied by an unfair process, hastily patched together after Supreme Court rulings that previous tribunal systems violated U.S. and international law.
"The problem is the law was specifically written after the fact to target Mr. Hamdan," Swift said.
Under the military commission, Hamdan did not have all the rights normally accorded either by U.S. civilian or military courts. The judge allowed secret testimony and hearsay evidence. Hamdan was not judged by a jury of his peers and he received no Miranda warning about his rights.
Hamdan's attorneys said interrogations at the center of the government's case were tainted by coercive tactics, including sleep deprivation and solitary confinement.
All that is in contrast to the courts-martial used to prosecute American troops in Iraq and Vietnam, which accorded defendants more rights.
But deputy White House spokesman Tony Fratto disputed allegations of injustice.
"We're pleased that Salim Hamdan received a fair trial," he said in a statement.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said Hamdan was "zealously represented by his defense team. The jury made their decision based on the law and the facts presented in court. We respect that decision."
Fratto said prosecutors will now press ahead with other war crimes trials. Prosecutors intend to try about 80 Guantanamo detainees, including 19 already charged.
The military has not said where Hamdan would serve a sentence, but the commander of the detention center, Navy Rear Adm. David Thomas, said last week that convicted prisoners will be held apart