Bali bombers may return to Malaysia after sentencing

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – When a jury of military officers is assembled this week at Guantanamo Bay, it will be asked to choose a sentence in the 20- to 25-year range for two Malaysian prisoners who admitted to conspiring with an affiliate of Al-Qaeda that carried out a deadly bombing in Indonesia two decades ago.

But behind the scenes, through a secret agreement that was negotiated with a senior Trump-era official, the men could be returned to Malaysia before the end of 2024.

The sentencing proceedings for Mohammed Farik Amin, 48, and Mohammed Nazir Lep, 47, are part of a US government strategy of trying to resolve Guantanamo’s national security cases through plea negotiations.

The men spent years in secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) prisons following their capture in 2003. In reaching the agreement, prosecutors averted lengthy litigation over torture that has stymied two capital cases, one for the Sept 11 attacks and the other for the bombing of the USS Cole.

The two men were captured along with a one-time member of the Qaeda affiliate, an Indonesian known as Hambali.

Last week, they pleaded guilty to conspiring in a pair of suicide bombings on the resort island of Bali that killed 202 people on Oct 12, 2002. As part of the plea agreement, they were questioned by prosecutors Sunday and Monday, potentially for use in the trial of Hambali, which prosecutors want to hold in 2025.

The testimony is secret for now. But in their plea they said they had no first-hand knowledge that Hambali was responsible for the attack. They said they learnt afterwards from news reports on the internet that Hambali was wanted for a string of attacks carried out by the Jemaah Islamiyah movement and that they helped him elude capture.

A portion of the plea agreement that envisions their return to Malaysia is also secret.

The judge, Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Braun, announced in court that the plea agreement limited the jury to deciding a sentence of no less than 20 years and no more than 25 years. He did not disclose whether the sentence could be reduced as part of the cooperation agreement.

But the judge cited an unusual exception to a requirement that they waive all appeals of their convictions. If they are still at Guantanamo 180 days after a senior Pentagon official approves the sentence, they can petition a federal court for their release.

Separately, Lt-Col Braun has also awarded the defendants some undisclosed sentencing credit for the prosecution’s failure to give defence lawyers evidence in a timely manner, according to legal staff who have seen the ruling. It has not been made public.

The plea agreement was reached by Mr Jeffrey Wood, who served as the war court overseer, or Convening Authority, from April 2020 until about three months ago. His successor, Brigadier-General Susan Escallier, will evaluate whether the Malaysian men cooperated fully with the government and whether any promises Wood made about a shortened sentence must be fulfilled.

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