Judge clears way for civilian trial of Guantánamo detainee
Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani will stand trial in September for the 1998 truck bombing of the American Embassy in Tanzania despite Mr. Ghailani lawyers' objections that the US violated his speedy-trial rights. Ghailani has been detained by the US for at least five years.
A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the US did not violate the speedy-trial rights of a terror suspect. Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was interrogated and held for two years by the CIA and detained for another three years at Guantánamo Bay before being brought to New York City to stand trial for the 1998 truck bombing of the US Embassy in Tanzania.
The ruling is a victory for Attorney General Eric Holder, who has sought to underscore the usefulness of using both military detention authority as well as the criminal courts in the battle against international terrorism.
Mr. Ghailani is the first Guantánamo detainee transferred by the Obama administration from military to civilian custody pending trial in federal court.
His lawyers had asked US District Judge Lewis Kaplan to dismiss the indictment in his case on grounds that the government failed to prosecute the criminal case in a timely manner.
After his capture in 2004, Ghailani was held for two years in secret CIA interrogation centers, where he was subject to enhanced interrogation methods. Later he was transferred to the terror prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Mr. Ghailani’s lawyers argued that once Ghailani was in US custody in 2004, the government had to make a choice to proceed with the criminal prosecution or to dismiss the indictment and hold him for intelligence purposes as an enemy combatant.
Judge Kaplan ruled that such a choice is not required. “The delay in this case did not materially infringe upon any interest protected by the right to a speedy trial,” he said in a 46-page ruling.
The action clears the way for Ghailani’s trial on Sept. 27.
The decision is significant in part because the judge refused to consider the legality of the harsh tactics used during Ghailani’s interrogation by the CIA. Lawyers had argued that their client suffered significant physical and psychological harm during the ordeal.
“This is not the time or the place to pass judgment on whether those techniques, in and of themselves, were appropriate or legal,” Kaplan said.
The question, the judge said, was whether the CIA’s treatment undercut the values protected by the Constitution’s speedy-trial clause.
The speedy-trial requirement is designed in part to prevent the government from gaining an advantage by delaying the start of a trial.
Kaplan said that Ghailani, as a captured enemy combatant, would have been detained by the military during the entire disputed period anyway. So the fact that he was in CIA custody enduring harsh interrogations or detained at Guantánamo was not a significant enough factor.
The judge ruled that the five-year delay did not undercut Ghailani’s ability to defend himself in the criminal case.
Ghailani’s lawyers had argued that the delay made it harder to obtain witnesses for the defense so many years after the alleged crime. The judge rejected this argument.
“There is no persuasive evidence that the delay in this prosecution has impaired Ghailani’s ability to defend himself in any respect or significantly prejudiced him in any other way pertinent to the speedy-trial analysis,” Kaplan wrote.
At one point during his detention at Guantánamo, Ghailani was brought before a military tribunal and questioned under oath. The transcript of that proceeding has been released to the public. In it, Ghailani admits to delivering the TNT and gas canisters to the house where the Tanzania truck bomb was assembled. But he said he wasn’t aware that it was TNT and that a bomb was being built.
He denied being a member of Al Qaeda but admitted that after the bomb attacks he went to Afghanistan and trained in the use of weapons and explosives in an Al Qaeda training camp. He admitted that he worked for Al Qaeda forging passports. And he admitted that he met Osama bin Laden and other top Al Qaeda officials. But he denied swearing an oath of allegiance.
The New York indictment relates to the Aug. 7, 1998, embassy bombing in Tanzania. Eleven individuals died and 85 were injured when a truck bomb packed with TNT and gas canisters detonated. At the same time, a similar truck bomb exploded outside the American Embassy in Kenya, killing 213. Al Qaeda later claimed responsibility for both attacks.
Ghailani was named in a December 1998 indictment as a co-conspirator with Mr. Bin Laden and others for allegedly waging a campaign of terror against the United States.