Bin Laden's ex-driver home in Yemen after Gitmo

By: AP
By: AP

SAN'A, Yemen (AP) -- Osama bin Laden's former driver returned home to Yemen Wednesday to serve out his remaining prison sentence after the U.S. released him from Guantanamo Bay, American and Yemeni officials said.

Salim Hamdan was transferred to Yemeni custody and taken to a state security prison after he arrived at a military base at San'a International Airport Wednesday night, a Yemeni security official said.

Hamdan was the first man to go before a U.S. war crimes trial since the end of World War II. He was convicted on Aug. 6 of providing material support to terrorism, and the military said it could keep him locked up indefinitely if it considered him to be a continued threat. Instead, he was sent back home to Yemen early.

Hamdan's U.S. military attorney said the 40-year-old father of two was incredulous when he learned Saturday he being sent home to Yemen.

"The defense team spoke to him on the telephone on Sunday morning. He was still in a state of disbelief," Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer said Wednesday. "He thanked each of us for our work on the case and we agreed to speak again soon when he was in Yemen."

Hamdan was sentenced at the trial to 5 1/2 years in prison. He was credited with five years and one month time served so his sentence ends on Dec. 27, the Pentagon has said.

His family in Yemen asked to greet him when he arrived, but the government denied their request, said the Yemeni official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

Hamdan has never seen his 7-year-old daughter, his attorney said.

Mizer said he did not know what setup the Yemeni authorities have for keeping Hamdan detained until his release date.

Yemen is the ancestral homeland of bin Laden, and the site of the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

Guantanamo prosecutors sought a sentence of 30 years to life for Hamdan and they argued that he should not receive credit for his time detained at Guantanamo. A military judge rejected that argument and called Hamdan a "small player."

The jury of military officers convicted him of supporting terrorism but acquitted him of being part of al-Qaida's conspiracy to attack the United States. He was also cleared of providing missiles to al-Qaida and knowing his work would be used for terrorism.

"We welcome the release of Hamdan from Guantanamo and his return to his homeland, even though we believe his sentence is unlawful," said Ahmed Irman, a Yemeni human rights lawyer who works on cases involving Yemeni Guantanamo Bay detainees.

In 1996, Hamdan left Yemen to become an Islamic fighter in the former Soviet state of Tajikistan, according to testimony by U.S. authorities.

He couldn't get into that country so he went to Afghanistan, where he got a job with bin Laden. Hamdan was first hired to work on the terrorist leader's farms, then was promoted to driver and doubled as a bodyguard, U.S. prosecutors have said.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Hamdan drove bin Laden among safehouses as the U.S. tried to pinpoint the al-Qaida leader's whereabouts. About a month later, he left bin Laden to evacuate his daughter and pregnant wife from Afghanistan.

While heading back to Kandahar after dropping them off, he was stopped at a roadblock and turned over U.S. forces. In May 2002, he was taken to Guantanamo.

There are about 90 Yemenis in Guantanamo, representing the largest group of detainees there.

Though Yemen considers itself a strong partner with the U.S. in the fight against terrorism and American officials say Yemen has been helpful, Washington grumbles about what they call a history of lax detention policies.

The government has struggled to maintain order in some areas of the country that are beyond its control. In September, 13 people were killed during a suicide bombing outside the U.S. Embassy in San'a. Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen claimed responsibility.

Last year, the U.S. State Department threatened to withhold aid from Yemen after it reportedly released a convicted plotter in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden harbor, an attack that killed 17 American sailors. Yemen later said the plotter was in custody.

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Associated Press writers Andrew O. Selsky in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

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