First Gitmo conviction under Obama shrouded in secrecy: Judge seals sentence

By Associated Press
Monday, August 9, 2010 15:23 EDT
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US military judge seals sentence for Guantanamo detainee who struck plea deal with prosecutors

A U.S. military judge on Monday ordered that a plea agreement capping the sentence of an Osama bin Laden aide be sealed, shrouding in secrecy the first Guantanamo conviction under President Barack Obama.

The judge, Air Force Lt. Col. Nancy Paul, said the deal limiting how much more time detainee Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi spends in confinement will not be revealed until after his release. She said that condition of the plea bargain was requested by the government and agreed to by the detainee’s lawyers.

The sealing of the sentence is a first for the military commissions system, which the Obama administration has pledged to make more transparent.

A spokesman for prosecutors, Navy Capt. David Iglesias, said he could not comment on the reasons for the secrecy. But he said it was consistent with federal courts’ handling of matters involving national security and claimed it was also in al-Qosi’s best interest.

“We don’t want to create a disincentive for a detainee to plead guilty,” Iglesias said, without elaborating.

A jury of American military officers is expected to begin deliberating a sentence Tuesday, but officials overseeing the tribunals will reject their decision if it exceeds the terms of the plea bargain, Iglesias said. A longer sentence could be applied, however, if al-Qosi did something to break the terms of the plea agreement, Iglesias added.

Al-Qosi, who worked as a cook and driver for al-Qaida, pleaded guilty July 7 to one count each of providing material support for terrorism and conspiracy. He had faced a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted at trial.

At the hearing inside a high-security courthouse, the 50-year-old Sudanese detainee sat beside his lawyers wearing a white prison uniform, a long gray beard and translation headphones.

Without revealing details in court, prosecutors and defense attorneys said al-Qosi has fulfilled commitments that were required of him as part of the plea agreement.

But defense attorneys complained the government has not yet delivered on its pledge to ensure that al-Qosi would serve any additional prison time at Guantanamo’s Camp 4, a communal-style section reserved for the best-behaved detainees where al-Qosi is currently held. Typically, convicted detainees are held alone in solid-wall cells.

“This is the linchpin upon which this agreement is based,” said defense attorney Paul Reichler, who won a ruling from the judge ordering that al-Qosi not be taken into solitary confinement.

The on-again, off-again tribunal system has faced repeated legal setbacks since it was established by then-President George W. Bush to prosecute terror suspects following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

President Barack Obama introduced some changes designed to extend more legal protections to detainees, but human rights groups say the system is still unfair and prosecutions should be held in U.S. civilian courts instead.

Al-Qosi was one of the first prisoners taken to Guantanamo in January 2002.

He followed bin Laden to Afghanistan in 1996 after the al-Qaida chief was expelled from Sudan. The trained accountant was in charge of the al-Qaida compound’s kitchen in Jalalabad and acknowledged in a signed statement that he provided other logistical support to the terrorist group.

The first contested military trial under Obama is scheduled to begin Tuesday for Omar Khadr, a Canadian accused of killing an American soldier with a grenade in Afghanistan.

Obama had pledged shortly after his inauguration in January 2009 to close the prison within a year. But the effort has stalled because Congress will not agree to moving prisoners to the United States.

Source: AP News

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