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(photo credit: AP)
A Guantanamo prisoner who made propaganda videos for Osama bin Laden and says he volunteered to be a Sept. 11 hijacker was convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to life in prison Monday.
A jury of nine US military officers deliberated for just under an hour before condemning Ali Hamza al-Bahlul at Guantanamo's second war-crimes trial. Al-Bahlul was convicted of 35 counts of conspiracy, solicitation to commit murder and providing material support for terrorism.
The jury, which announced its verdict earlier Monday, dismissed one count of conspiracy and one count of providing material support for terrorism.
The 39-year-old Yemeni defiantly admitted joining al-Qaida, accused the US of oppressing Muslims for 50 years and said "we will fight any government that governs America."
He told jurors before his sentencing he volunteered to be the 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks but bin Laden told him his role was only to produce propaganda.
"We are the only ones on Earth who stand against you," al-Bahlul said, adding that the U.S. has only itself to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Whoever said this happened out of nowhere is an idiot," he said. "You have started the war against us."
His Pentagon-appointed attorney, Air Force Maj. David Frakt, said he wasn't surprised by the life sentence considering the defendant's comments before sentencing.
"I think the 20th hijacker comment pretty much sealed the deal," Frakt said after the sentencing. "But he might have gotten life anyway."
The lead prosecutor, Army Maj. Daniel Cowhig, said al-Bahlul has shown no remorse or regret.
"When will it be safe for this man to leave confinement? Never," Cowhig said.
Al-Bahlul was not accused of participating in the Sept. 11 attacks, but prosecutors and witnesses said he was so close to bin Laden that he hooked up a satellite receiver so the pair could hear live radio coverage of the attacks as they huddled in Afghanistan's Khost province.
Prosecutors said he also acknowledged to interrogators that he was al-Qaida's media chief, made propaganda videos that inspired terrorists to attack the US, and arranged for lead Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta to swear a loyalty oath to the al-Qaida chief.
Al-Bahlul called the military tribunal a "legal farce" and refused to mount a defense. His lawyer stayed silent during the trial, refusing to even answer questions from the judge.
Witnesses at his sentencing hearing included the father of a sailor killed in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole - which was featured in a video the military says al-Bahlul produced to train and inspire al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan.
Gary Swenchonis Sr., whose son Gary was killed in the attack, said he was devastated that al-Bahlul's video has been widely available on the Internet.
"It's pervasive," said Swenchonis, of Rockport, Texas, his voice thick with emotion. "That's what's so bad. That's what's so wrong."
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.
Former bin Laden driver Salim Hamdan was convicted in August and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison. He is still at Guantanamo and will have completed his sentence by January year with credit for time served.
A third prisoner, Australian David Hicks, reached a plea agreement that sent him home to serve a nine-month prison sentence.
The military has not yet decided where al-Bahlul will serve his sentence but for now will be kept from the general population at Guantanamo.
U.S. officials have said they plan to prosecute about 80 of the 255 prisoners still held at Guantanamo, but critics of the tribunals say they doubt there will be any more trials. Both Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have said they want to close Guantanamo.
"I suspect that's the last of the military commissions," said retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis, who resigned as chief prosecutor for the trials in October 2007 after clashing with his superiors over his alleged political interference.
"With the Bush administration in its final 80 days I'm hopeful the next administration will put an end to this regrettable chapter in our nation's history and begin the process of restoring the nation's reputation."
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