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Ahmed Ghailani gets life sentence for Al Qaeda bombing of US embassies

A US judge rejected leniency for Al Qaeda conspirator Ahmed Ghailani, who alleged mistreatment during harsh interrogations. His trial was the first of a Guantánamo detainee in a civilian US court.

By Staff writer / January 25, 2011

In this courtroom drawing, lead defense attorney Peter Quijano, second right, addresses U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, while his client Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, third right, listens as Ghailani is sentenced to life in prison Tuesday in New York. Ghailani is the first Guantanamo Bay detainee to face a U.S. civilian jury.

Elizabeth Williams/AP

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A federal judge sentenced Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani to life in prison on Tuesday for his role in Al Qaeda’s 1998 truck bomb attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

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US District Judge Lewis Kaplan rejected requests by defense lawyers for leniency in recognition of Mr. Ghailani’s alleged mistreatment during harsh US interrogations. Instead, the judge imposed the maximum sentence on the 36-year-old Tanzania national.

Whatever the level of Ghailani’s suffering, it “pales in comparision to the suffering and the horror he and his confederates caused,” the judge told a packed Manhattan courtroom, according to the Associated Press.

Judge Kaplan brushed aside defense arguments and said that Ghailani knew and intended that people would be killed in the terror attacks.

“This crime was so horrible,” Kaplan said. “It was a cold-blooded killing and maiming of innocent people on an enormous scale.”

He added: “The purpose of the crime was to create terror by causing death and destruction on a scale that was hard to imagine in 1998.”

In a largely symbolic move, the judge also ordered Ghailani to pay restitution of $33 million to the US government and relatives of victims of the attack.

Ghailani was convicted in November of a single charge in his 285-count indictment – conspiracy to destroy buildings or property of the United States. The verdict included a special finding that Ghailani’s conduct caused at least one death.

But the jury, deliberating after a five-week trial, acquitted Ghailani of 284 other charges, including 273 counts of murder or attempted murder.

Critiques of his civilian-court trial

The case marked the first trial of a Guantánamo detainee in a US civilian court. It was viewed as a test case to determine whether other military prisoners at Guantánamo – including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – would be tried in a federal court rather than by a special military commission at Guantánamo.

The case highlighted the challenges of affording full constitutional protections to terrorism suspects who were once held in secret detention overseas and subjected to harsh interrogation tactics by US intelligence officials.

A key government witness was barred from testifying at the trial that he sold TNT to Ghailani. Kaplan ruled that the testimony must be excluded because the witness’s identity was revealed to the US by Ghailani during coercive interrogation sessions. Defense lawyers said their client was subjected to “torture.”

Administration critics cited the shaky, one-count verdict as proof that Al Qaeda suspects should face trial at Guantánamo rather than in US courts. Last month, Congress approved a measure that bars the Obama administration from transferring Guantánamo detainees to the US for any purpose – including a civilian trial.

Others analysts have pointed to the Ghailani verdict as an example of the resilience and essential fairness of the US justice system.

The central focus of the trial was the coordinated truck bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on Aug. 7, 1998. The Nairobi attack killed 213 people. Eleven died in Dar es Salaam. Thousands were injured.

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