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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.

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"The first foreign terrorist detained at Guantánamo Bay to be tried in civilian courts, Ghailani’s trial was a test run for the Obama administration’s plan to try foreign terrorists in US courts. It was also a near-disaster," Smith said in the statement printed by National Journal. The case was a "close call," he said, as Ghailani was only found guilty on a single count of conspiracy while all other charges were dropped.

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The BBC quoted Congressman Peter King (R) of New York as saying: "This tragic verdict demonstrates the absolute insanity of the Obama administration's decision to try Al-Qaeda terrorists in civilian courts."

However, some human rights advocates argued that the fact that prosecutors had to meet certain legal standards in presenting witnesses proved that civilian courts are more likely to give fair trials to accused terrorists.

"Federal courts are not only the right place but the most effective place to prosecute terrorism suspects," Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Post. "As the Obama administration reportedly considers prosecuting some terrorism suspects in the illegitimate military commissions, we hope it will heed the lesson of the Ghailani case – federal courts work, military commissions don't."

The White House, for its part, seemed pleased with the results of Ghailani’s trial, while at the same time left the door open for future terrorism trials to be held in other venues.

"Today's sentencing of Ahmed Ghailani shows yet again the strength of the American justice system in holding terrorists accountable for their actions," US Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement quoted by Agence France-Presse. "As this case demonstrates, we will not rest in bringing to justice terrorists who seek to harm the American people, and we will use every tool available to the government to do so."

The government has reasons to be flexible on this issue, writes Massimo Calabresi on Time's blog Swampland:

[T]he administration lost the political battle long ago, and the Ghailani decision is the last dying light from the ashes of Obama and Holder's plan to close Gitmo using the federal courts. After Ghailani was convicted of just one count out of hundreds last November, congressional opponents of civilian trials moved a measure blocking transfer of Gitmo detainees to the US as part of the defense authorization bill that passed last December. Now the administration's stuck bolstering military trials it has tried to downplay.

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