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MIAMI (Reuters) - A Sudanese prisoner accused of guarding Osama bin Laden and helping him escape U.S. forces in Afghanistan pleaded guilty at Guantanamo Wednesday, giving the Obama administration its first conviction in the controversial war crimes court.
Ibrahim al Qosi pleaded guilty to conspiring with al Qaeda and providing material support for terrorism, court spokesman Joe DellaVedova said.
Qosi, who ran the kitchen and provided supplies at Bin Laden's Star of Jihad compound in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, has been held at Guantanamo for more than eight years.
His sentence could range from no additional time to life imprisonment, DellaVedova said by phone from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A panel of U.S. military officers will assemble at Guantanamo to hear evidence and deliberate his sentence on August 9.
The terms of his plea agreement were not disclosed but it was expected to contain some limit on his sentence.
Qosi, 50, is only the fourth captive convicted in the controversial military tribunals since the Guantanamo detention camp was opened to hold terrorism suspects in January 2002.
Two were sent home to Australia and Yemen after serving brief sentences. One other, al Qaeda videographer Ali Hamza al Bahlul of Yemen, remains at Guantanamo serving a life term for the same two charges Qosi pleaded guilty to.
Shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama signed an order to close the detention camp by January 2009, and said suspected terrorists should be tried in the U.S. courts or in regular courts-martial.
But his efforts to shut down the camp have been stymied by Congress and his administration opted to tweak the Guantanamo court system rather than scrap it.
The detention camp still holds 181 prisoners. The Obama administration plans to try about three dozen of them either at Guantanamo or in U.S. federal courts, including five accused of plotting the September 11 attacks, while holding 48 others indefinitely and repatriating or resettling the rest.
Qosi was charged by the U.S. military with acting as bin Laden's driver and bodyguard and helping him escape to the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. He was also part of an al Qaeda mortar crew.
Qosi admitted under oath that he provided logistical support for al Qaeda with the full knowledge that it was a terrorist group, DellaVedova said.
"He admitted he engaged in hostilities against the United States in violation of the laws of war," DellaVedova said.
"Al Qosi said under oath that he intentionally supported al Qaeda in hostilities against the United States since at least 1996, when Osama bin Laden issued an order urging followers to commit acts of terrorism against the United States."
Qosi was a bookkeeper in his native Khartoum, where he first met bin Laden, and travelled with him to Afghanistan when the al Qaeda leader moved his operations there in 1996. He was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001 and first charged in the Guantanamo court system known as military commissions in 2004.
The charge of providing material support for terrorism has not traditionally been a violation of the laws of war. Congress retroactively made it one in 2006, and the Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to persuade lawmakers to drop it from the list of crimes triable by military commission when it revised the law underpinning the Guantanamo trials in 2009.
Top administration lawyers testified before Congress last year that any conviction on that charge was likely to be overturned by the appellate courts.
But Qosi waived his right to appeal by pleading guilty, said Navy Captain David Iglesias, one of the prosecutors handling other Guantanamo cases.
"It's still one of the enumerated acts under the Military Commissions Act of 2009," Iglesias said "We charged him with it, he pleaded guilty to it."
Human rights groups said Qosi's conviction was hardly a validation for the Guantanamo court.
"In fact Mr. al Qosi's case is a textbook example of the inability of the military commission system -- now in its third incarnation -- to achieve swift justice," said Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First. "The case has dragged on for more than six years without a trial. By the time he entered his guilty plea today, the commission still hadn't decided whether it even has jurisdiction over him."
Editing by Cynthia Osterman