A U.S. military judge on Monday ordered that a plea agreement capping the maximum sentence of an Osama bin Laden aide be sealed, shrouding in secrecy the first Guantanamo conviction under President Barack Obama.
The judge, Air Force Lt. Col. Nancy Paul, said the deal limiting how much more time Sudanese detainee Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al-Qosi spends in confinement will not be revealed until after his release. She said the condition of the plea bargain was requested by the government and agreed to by al-Qosi's lawyers.
The sealing of the sentence is a first for the military tribunal system, which the Obama administration has pledged to make more transparent.
Al-Qosi, who worked as a cook and driver for al-Qaida, pleaded guilty July 7 to one count each of providing material support for terrorism and conspiracy.
A spokesman for prosecutors, Navy Capt. David Iglesias, said he could not comment on the reasons for the secrecy on the sentencing deal. But he said it was consistent with federal courts' handling of matters involving national security and claimed it was also in al-Qosi's best interest.
"We don't want to create a disincentive for a detainee to plead guilty," Iglesias said, without elaborating.
Al-Qosi had faced a maximum sentence of life in prison.
A jury of American military officers is expected to begin deliberating a sentence Tuesday, but officials overseeing the tribunals will reject their decision if it exceeds the terms of the plea bargain, Iglesias said. A longer sentence could be applied, however, if al-Qosi did something to break the terms of the plea deal, he added.
At the hearing inside a high-security courthouse, the 50-year-old detainee sat beside his lawyers wearing a white prison uniform, a long gray beard and translation headphones.
Without revealing details in court, prosecutors and defense attorneys said al-Qosi has fulfilled commitments that were required of him as part of the plea agreement.
But defense attorneys complained the government has not yet delivered on its pledge to ensure that al-Qosi serves any additional prison time at Guantanamo's Camp 4, a communal-style section reserved for the best-behaved detainees where al-Qosi is currently held. Typically, convicted detainees are held alone in solid-wall cells.
"This is the linchpin upon which this agreement is based," said defense attorney Paul Reichler, who won a ruling from the judge ordering that al-Qosi not be put into solitary confinement.
The on-again, off-again tribunal system has faced repeated legal setbacks since it was established by then-President George W. Bush to prosecute terror suspects after the 9/11 terror attack on the U.S.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 struck down one version of the military trials, known as commissions, before Congress and the Bush administration came up with new trial rules later that year.
Obama revised the system further to extend more legal protections to detainees, but human rights groups say the system is still unfair and prosecutions should be held in U.S. civilian courts instead.
Al-Qosi is the fourth Guantanamo detainee to be convicted and the first since Obama took office. Two of the others — Australian David Hicks and bin Laden driver Salim Hamdan — have already served their sentences and been returned home, while al-Qaida media chief Ali Hamza al-Bahlul is serving a life sentence at Guantanamo.
Al-Qosi was one of the first prisoners taken to Guantanamo in January 2002.
He followed bin Laden to Afghanistan in 1996 after the al-Qaida chief was expelled from Sudan. The trained accountant was in charge of the al-Qaida compound's kitchen in Jalalabad and acknowledged in a signed statement that he provided other logistical support to the terrorist group. He fled the al-Qaida hideout at Tora Bora during the U.S.-led invasion, crossed the border into Pakistan and was arrested by local officials who turned him over to U.S. forces.
The first contested military trial under Obama is scheduled to begin Tuesday for Omar Khadr, a Canadian accused of killing an American soldier with a grenade in Afghanistan.
The judge presiding over that case, Army Col. Pat Parrish, on Monday denied defense motions to exclude confessions that Khadr's team claimed were tainted by abuse including threats of rape.
Khadr, who was 15 when he was captured in 2002, is the youngest inmate at Guantanamo Bay and the only remaning Westerner. He has pleaded not guilty to charges including murder, conspiracy and spying.
Obama had pledged shortly after his inauguration in January 2009 to close the prison within a year. But the effort has stalled because Congress will not agree to moving prisoners to the United States.
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