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Published: Monday, 8/11/2008

Show trial at Gitmo

THE verdict handed down by a military panel at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, against Salim Ahmed Hamdan, one of Osama bin Laden's drivers, had encouraging aspects for those directly concerned, but it damaged America's reputation for justice.

Hamdan was found guilty at the U.S. Naval Station in Cuba on a charge of "material support for terrorism," a satisfying result for the prosecution and the Bush Administration. He was found not guilty on a charge of conspiracy, a triumph for the defense that won him a sentence of only 5 1/2 years.

What happens now is anyone's guess. Because of the time he's already been in U.S. custody, will Hamdan actually be released in just six months? Or will President Bush merely order him detained indefinitely as an enemy combatant? The administration claims it has this power.

That's the problem with this sort of sham legal proceeding - in common parlance, a kangaroo court - the rules are pretty much being made up as it goes along and the ultimate result is not in doubt. That's hardly playing by the rules of the democratic society the United States professes to be.

We suspect that the White House orchestrated this trial - and the outcome, since the jury of career military officers was picked by the prosecution - so that the process it created would be seen both as "fair" and as a reasonable punishment for an accused terrorist. It failed on both counts.

After all, Hamdan was one of bin Laden's personal functionaries, hardly a high-level al-Qaeda operative. Americans will recall that Mr. Bush pledged to take the terrorist mastermind dead or alive. Instead, the military was reduced to putting a minor underling on trial nearly seven years after the 9/11 attacks.

Meanwhile, bin Laden himself may still be alive - in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or maybe back in Afghanistan.

The painful part for American justice was the trial itself. Much of the evidence presented against Hamdan remains classified, presumably in the name of national security. Any discussion of whether torture was used to obtain that evidence also was kept secret. The name of the Central Intelligence Agency could not be mentioned during the proceedings because the government pretends the CIA was not involved.

The Guantanamo trial took place under the Military Commissions Act of 2006, another Bush achievement in conjunction with a compliant Congress to create what can only be described as a perversion of American justice.

Was the result - a split verdict against a minor defendant in the world of terrorism - worth the stain the process leaves on America's reputation for adherence to the rule of law? We think not.



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