By CAROL ROSENBERG
A military appeals court ruled Friday that Osama bin Laden’s media secretary was properly convicted of being a propagandist for al-Qaida and deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison.
The panel of seven senior U.S. military officers also found that Yemeni Ali Hamza al Bahlul, 41, had not demonstrated any potential for rehabilitation after nearly a decade at the U.S. prison camps in southeast Cuba. He’s Guantánamo’s lone convict serving a life sentence.
Unlike bin Laden’s driver, who is free in Yemen after serving a quick support-for-terror sentence, Bahlul demonstrated no remorse during his military commission trial, the panel ruled in a 139-page decision written by Navy Capt. Eric Price.
Prosecutors argued at a four-day no-contest trial in November 2008 that Bahlul incited suicide bombers before the 9/11 attacks by producing a crude al-Qaida recruiting film. The two-hour video spliced footage of fiery bin Laden speeches with the aftermath of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors off Aden, Yemen.
Pentagon paid appeals lawyers said the punishment didn’t fit the crime.
“We are unmoved by appellant’s argument that he was a ‘media man,’ who was sentenced to confinement for ‘life without parole for producing a video, writing speeches and providing tech support,” the military judges wrote in their ruling for the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review.
Rather, the panel ruled that Bahlul’s “contributions to al-Qaida were of strategic significance to recruiting, indoctrination, retention and inciting others to support or join al-Qaida” – notably two of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers whom he helped swear loyalty oaths to bin Laden.
Bahlul refused to mount a defense at trial and instead offered a 40-minute monologue that paid homage to bin Laden. During the prosecutor’s closing, Bahlul also waved a tiny boat and airplane, fashioned from folded paper, while the prosecutor sought to link the Cole bombing video to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Bahlul’s attorneys had sought to get the sentence overturned on constitutional grounds, arguing the Yemeni was punished for unpopular political speech and that he has a First Amendment protection as a U.S.-held prisoner.
The court disagreed. The U.S. military judges acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court granted Guantánamo detainees the right to challenge their detention in federal courts, through a writ of habeas corpus, but said the Yemeni could not claim the protections of the First Amendment.
Bahlul made his film in Afghanistan, and with “no lawful connection with the United States,” they wrote. “His only subsequent connection to the United States was his capture, detention and trial. Such a connection does not thereby recast speech made years before with First Amendment protections.”
According to the court, Bahlul turns 42 on Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks the Yemeni at times celebrated in his military commissions hearings. A November 2007 Guantánamo risk assessment uncovered by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks listed his date of birth as only 1969. But the panel listed his birth date as Sept. 11, 1969.
Friday’s decision was the conviction upheld by the panel established as the first stop for appeals of Guantánamo war court cases. The judges issued the ruling Friday at about 6:30 p.m., said Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman. Next, Bahlul’s lawyers could take their challenge to a civilian court in Washington, D.C.
Bahlul’s Pentagon appointed appellate attorney, Michel Paradis, a Defense Department employee, declined to comment on the decision Friday night, citing respect for “Bahlul’s wishes.”
It was not immediately known whether the convict had been handed a copy in remote Guantánamo, and whether and how arrangements might be made to translate the decision into the prisoner’s native Arabic.