Guantanamo jury to sentence al Qaeda conspirator
By Jane Sutton
GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A U.S. military jury debated the sentence on Friday for an admitted al Qaeda conspirator from Sudan who promised to help in the prosecution of other prisoners in the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals.
Prisoner Noor Uthman Muhammed pleaded guilty on Tuesday to conspiring with al Qaeda and providing material support for terrorism. The jury at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base began deliberating his sentence on Friday.
The nine members of the military jury can send him to prison for 10 to 14 years in addition to the nine he has already been held. But his sealed plea deal is thought to cap the sentence at only a few years, and he would serve more only if he breaks his promise to cooperate in other prosecutions.
Noor's case is the last one pending in the Guantanamo tribunals that have completed only six trials in nine years, but prosecutors expect to file more charges soon.
Much of this week's sentencing hearing focused on laying the groundwork to prosecute a "high-value" Guantanamo prisoner Noor was captured with, Abu Zubaydah. The U.S. military calls him a terrorist facilitator who funneled recruits to al Qaeda training camps, then supplied them with money and forged passports as they left to carry out attacks.
"Noor is not a small piece of the puzzle, he's a sliver," said his defense lawyer, Marine Captain Christopher Kannady. "Very little of this evidence ever refers to or even mentions Noor."
Noor, who is about 44, admitted he gave small-arms training at the Khaldan paramilitary camp in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2000 and sometimes filled in for the camp commander.
A prosecutor called Khaldan a criminal camp that turned young Muslim men into religious fanatics and tutored them in killing, bomb-making and conducting surveillance on embassies, military bases and airports.
'TERRORIST ASSEMBLY LINE'
"It was, simply put, a terrorist assembly line," Navy Lieutenant Commander Arthur L. Gaston III said.
Noor admitted he should have foreseen that some Khaldan graduates would become al Qaeda operatives. Three of them are now being held in the U.S. super-maximum prison in Colorado in connection with bomb plots and the September 11 conspiracy that involved crashing hijacked planes into U.S. buildings.
The defense argued that Noor lacked the education and ambition to learn bomb schematics and chemical formulas and was content to focus on obtaining food, water and supplies for the camp. He never joined al Qaeda or plotted any attacks and should not be punished for the crimes of others, Kannady said.
"He pled guilty but he didn't plead guilty to being a terrorist," Kannady said.
He said Khaldan was not an al Qaeda camp but was run by a man who earned respect fighting in the U.S.-backed war to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. That man shut it down in 2000 because he opposed al Qaeda, Kannady said.
Noor was captured at Zubaydah's safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in March 2002. He said he cooked and kept house for men who fled the Afghan camps after the U.S. invasion.
The house held a stash of how-to manuals for bombs, poisons and airplane hijackings. Noor's fingerprints were not on any of the manuals, which were locked away on a floor Noor was not allowed to visit, Kannady said.
He asked the jury to send Noor home to Sudan, where his tribal leader has offered to find him a wife and a job. Noor's extended family also pledged support, as did a charity that resettled other Sudanese prisoners held at Guantanamo.