A Sudanese terror camp trainer on Tuesday pleaded guilty to conspiring with al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the ’90s under a plea bargain that, military sources said, offered him an early shot at freedom by 2015 in exchange for testimony at future trials.
Noor Uthman Mohammed, in his early 40s, handed the Obama administration its third guilty plea in a row at the war court. He stood before a Navy judge in a traditional white Muslim gown and headdress and said he voluntarily admitted to charges of conspiracy and supporting terrorism when he sealed a secret plea agreement with a thumbprint last month.
This deal comes at a time when Congress has imposed stiff new rules on resettlements, trials and relocations of Guantánamo’s last 172 prisoners and raises a key question: Is the clearest path out of Guantánamo for little-known captives now to admit to being a war criminal?
“The path does seem to be to admit guilt to these war crimes,” said George Washington University law professor Mary Cheh, a Washington, D.C., city council member serving as an observer here this week.
Guilty pleas in exchange for short prison sentences, she added, also let the government “gloss over fundamental legal issues” still bedeviling the on-again, off-again trials at a time when the White House is seeking “an endgame” for Guantánamo. For example, what constitutes a war crime? Is punishing people for acts that weren’t a war crime at the time constitutional?
Noor admitted to being a weapons instructor and sometime operations manager of the Khaldan terror training camp along the Afghan-Pakistan tribal frontier border before the 9/11 attacks. His thumbprint sealed a now-secret narrative of what he did at the camp and in the company of an alleged arch-terrorist known as Abu Zubaydah, a document that could potentially be used at future trials.
Also under seal was how much time he would have to serve on a punitive cellblock as a war criminal. Military sources said his prison sentence ends by January 2015, provided he meets the conditions of the plea bargain, which include testimony at future trials.
The Pentagon’s chief war crimes prosecutor, Navy Capt. John F. Murphy, said Noor “was part of the apparatus of al Qaeda,” between 1996 and 2000 at Khaldan. The 9/11 Commission Report said three of the so-called “muscle hijackers” who took part in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks trained at Khaldan.
Murphy called the guilty plea “another step in the justice that we are achieving in the commissions.’’
A five-to-15-member jury of senior U.S. military officers will be chosen Wednesday to hear about Noor’s crimes and deliberate a sentence of up to life in prison. The Pentagon would only use that sentence if its shorter than in the plea bargain — or if Noor breaks the agreement.
Yet to be seen is whether congressional restrictions on releases doom him to a longer stay, since Sudan is currently on the State Sponsors of Terror list.
Congress has put the brakes on Obama’s Guantánamo closure ambitions both by blocking prisoner releases and the use of Defense Department funds for trials on U.S. soil.
The president signed the restrictions into law last month.
Since then, the only captive to leave this remote Navy base was Afghan Awal Gul, 48, in a coffin.
The military says he dropped dead in the shower of a medium-security prison probably of a heart attack, after he worked out on an exercise machine.
Meantime, guilty pleas also create the veneer of voluntarism in a system that has held these men for nearly a decade without due process, said war court observer Laura Pitter, a Human Rights Watch lawyer.
“There’s a lot of pressure on these people to make a deal,” she said.
Last year, the Pentagon cleared two other cases from its war court docket by trading short sentences for guilty pleas.
Canadian Omar Khadr, 24, goes home by November because he pleaded guilty to throwing a grenade, at age 15, that killed a U.S. soldier in 2002 Afghanistan. His deal let him leave in a year, even though a jury sentenced him to 40 years — a term that might make some detainees think twice about going to trial.
Confessed al Qaeda cook Ibrahim al Qosi, 50, got a two-year prison sentence in exchange for his plea of supporting terrorism. He’s also from Sudan and might not be able to go home because his country is on the terror list.
But because he’s from Sudan, Although his homeland, Sudan, is on the U.S. State Sponsor of Terror list, which he can’t go home under Congressional sanctions.
Moreover, a Pentagon spokeswoman said Monday that Qosi would not necessarily be released from Guantánamo once his prison sentence ends — only from segregation in a maximum-security, penitentiary style lockup reserved for war criminals.
Qosi could go back with the other, uncharged war captives here living communally, some in indefinite detention.
Army Lt. Col. Tanya Bradsher said Qosi’ is “being punished for past acts.” After his sentence expires July 7, 2012, he could still be subject to “detention under the law of war” as “a belligerent during an armed conflict.”
Qosi’s Pentagon appointed defense attorney, Navy Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier, said in response that keeping him at Guantánamo after his prison sentence “bludgeons the interests of justice.”
“Indefinitely detaining a 53-year-old man who will have served his sentence and been in custody more than 11 years for being a cook serves neither our national security or foreign policy interests,’’ Lachelier said.
The Noor case is the last open prosecution at the war court that Obama condemned as a candidate and tweaked as president.
The Pentagon’s prosecutor, Murphy, said Tuesday he is awaiting permission from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to proceed with three more cases.
One is the death-penalty prosecution of former CIA waterboarded captive Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, an alleged architect of the October 2000 al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors off the coast of Yemen.