A U.S. military jury on Thursday imposed a surprisingly lenient sentence of 5 1/2 years on Osama bin Laden's ex-driver, Salim Hamdan, saying he should only spend another five months in prison for supporting terrorism.
Taking into account the time Hamdan has already served, the jury's decision added an additional five months of prison time -- though the Pentagon said it has no immediate plans to release him.
The outcome was a defeat for prosecutors who had portrayed Hamdan as a dangerous "Al-Qaeda warrior" who should be put away for at least 30 years for his work for the terrorist chief bin Laden, who remains at large seven years after the September 11 attacks.
The decision marked the end of a four-year legal battle over whether the U.S. administration could prosecute Hamdan in controversial "war on terror" tribunals that operate under different rules than regular courts.
Shortly before the sentence, Hamdan expressed sorrow and apologized over innocents killed -- an apparent reference to the September 11, 2001 terrorist strikes by bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network -- and appealed for leniency.
"It was a sorry or sad thing to see innocent people killed," Hamdan said in Arabic, translated by an interpreter. "I personally present my apologies to them if anything what I did have caused them pain."
After hearing the decision, Hamdan thanked the jury, then smiled and cried as he embraced his longtime defense lawyer, Charles Swift.
The sentence was a "stunning rebuke" to the government's case and a tribute to the integrity of the six military officers who served as jurors, Swift told reporters afterward.
"What ultimately happened -- in spite of the system -- was justice," he said.
Swift said the test now would be if the U.S. administration released Hamdan when his sentence was over in December, or invoked its disputed authority to hold him indefinitely without charges as a terror suspect or "unlawful enemy combatant."
Defense lawyers said they hoped the government would respect the findings of the jurors after a two-week trial and release their client. If not, the lawyers said they were ready to mount a challenge in federal courts, where they believe they would have a strong case.
Defense lawyers and rights groups said the trial demonstrated how the tribunal system was flawed, while Pentagon officials insisted the trial vindicated the tribunals and planned to press ahead with trials of other Guantanamo inmates.
Matt Pollard, legal adviser for Amnesty International, said Hamdan's conviction was based on a proceeding that "fundamentally failed to meet international fair trial standards."
"To impose any penalty based on it therefore could only aggravate the injustice of the trial and the other human rights violations during his many years of unlawful detention," he said.
The sentencing came after Hamdan was convicted Wednesday of providing support to Al-Qaeda but was cleared of a more serious conspiracy charge, in the first U.S. war crimes trial since World War II.
Hamdan, aged around 40 and with a fourth-grade education, was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 and eventually moved to Guantanamo in 2002.