GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – A jury of U.S. military officers at Guantanamo's second war-crimes trial reached a verdict Friday that could put Usama bin Laden's alleged "media secretary" and videomaker in prison for life.
But the decision will not be announced until Monday because Ali Hamza al-Bahlul was already back in his cell when the verdict was reached, said the judge, Air Force Col. Ronald Gregory. The judge told al-Bahlul no announcement would be made in his absence.
The nine panelists, all approved by the Pentagon to serve as jurors, deliberated for roughly four hours. The accused offered no defense after calling the proceedings a "legal farce."
The prosecution said al-Bahlul's violent propaganda videos helped inspire the Sept. 11 attacks. The Yemeni prisoner also helped prepare at least two Sept. 11 hijackers for their mission and instructed many other terrorists through videos he created as a propagandist for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Army Maj. Daniel Cowhig said.
"The accused shouted through the medium of video, the Internet, and DVDs: Love death, hate life," Cowhig said in closing statements Friday morning at the isolated Navy base.
Al-Bahlul refused to present a defense in the weeklong trial because the judge ruled he could not represent himself. His Pentagon-appointed lawyer did not speak at all in deference to his client's wishes, declining even to answer questions from the judge while in the courtoom.
Al-Bahlul, who was brought to Guantanamo in 2002, is the second prisoner to go through a war crimes trial under the special military commissions system. He faces up to life in prison if convicted of conspiracy, supporting terrorism and solicitation to commit murder.
The military claims al-Bahlul committed war crimes by serving as chief propagandist for Al Qaeda and as an aide to bin Laden. Videos made by the defendant were allegedly shown to terrorist recruits at training camps in Afghanistan.
Cowhig said he also arranged for lead Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta to swear a loyalty oath to bin Laden, and prepared filmed martyrdom wills for Atta and fellow hijacker Ziad Jarrah in preparation for the attacks against the United States.
"(These videos) contain the thoughts, the beliefs, the ideals of the accused," the prosecutor said.
Among the 14 people who testified for the defense, three upstate New York men convicted of aiding terrorism testified their Al Qaeda training included viewing a propaganda video allegedly created by the defendant.
The witnesses — three of the so-called "Lackawanna Six," — said the two-hour video featuring depictions of Al Qaeda's deadly 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, spliced with images of terrorist training camps and Muslims being brutalized was intended to inspire suicide attacks.
The military says al-Bahlul repeatedly admitted to interrogators that he was Al Qaeda's media chief and made propaganda videos for bin Laden. Al-Bahlul doesn't consider his actions criminal. But the U.S. military already determined him to be an unlawful enemy combatant, and says any work he did for Al Qaeda is by definition a war crime because Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization.
At one point, al-Bahlul smiled broadly as the uniformed prosecutor directly addressed the defendant.
"The accused identifies himself as an officer of Al Qaeda," Cowhig said, looking at the slight man with a close-cropped beard. "Al Qaeda is not an army, and you are not an officer."
The judge quickly ordered Cowhig to stop addressing the defendant and instead turn his attention to the jurors.
Just before the jury announced it had reached a verdict, al-Bahlul's Pentagon-appointed lawyer said the government's case was surpisingly sloppy considering the time they had to prepare against the defendant, who has been jailed at Guantanamo since 2002.
"I believe this is the last military trial that will take place. I think that this trial has further exposed this process and has turned the tide against continuing with military commissions," Air Force Maj. David Frakt told reporters
Army Col. Lawrence Morris, the chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo tribunals, said if al-Bahlul is convicted of war crimes, sentencing would likely immediately follow on Monday.
Jamil Dakwar, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who has been observing the trial, said the prosecution failed to prove al-Bahlul has any real connection to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It is an injustice to the victims of 9-11 for the government to build its case solely by videos and images of the attacks," Dakwar said.