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.

Elizabeth Williams/AP
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.

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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.

"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.

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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