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Terrorism & Security

Guantánamo detainee's sentence renews debate about civilian trials

The first civilian trial of a Guantánamo detainee prompted questions about whether civilian court is the best place for alleged terrorists.

By Nissa RheeCorrespondent / January 26, 2011

In this courtroom sketch, convicted terrorist Ahmed Ghailani listens to proceedings as he is sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1998 African embassy attacks, Tuesday, Jan. 25 in Federal Court in New York. Ghailani, the first Guantánamo Bay detainee to face a US civilian trial, was also ordered to pay $33 million in restitution.

Elizabeth Williams/AP

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The first former Guantánamo detainee to be brought before a US civilian court was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison for his role in the 1998 bombing of the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The ruling renewed the debate over whether accused terrorists should be tried in the US civilian court system.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a 36-year-old Tanzanian man, was convicted in November of conspiring to destroy US government buildings or property, but was acquitted of 284 other charges that included murder. Prosecutors in the case argued that Mr. Ghailani played a role in purchasing both explosive material and a truck used in the embassy bombing.

The Ghailani case was seen as a test for the feasibility of future Guantánamo detainee trials in the civilian system. The Monitor reports that the case laid bare some of the costs and benefits of trying detainees stateside, including problems with using evidence and testimony that may have been collected using tactics that some may consider torture.

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.”

Proponents of military trials applauded the court’s life sentence for Ghailani, but remained critical of how evidence in the trial was restricted by the civilian court’s judge.

"The punishment fits the crime," Kirk Lippold, a former commander of the USS Cole warship that was attacked by Al Qaeda in 2000, told The Washington Post. "What cannot be forgotten from this trial is that the verdict handed down in November represented a mockery of justice and is further proof that civilian trials for enemy combatants are a foolish and misguided strategy."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R) of Texas released a statement strongly criticizing the trial’s lack of efficiency in prosecuting Ghailani.

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