A New York City jury acquitted alleged Al Qaeda accomplice Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani of all major terrorism charges in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in the first trial of a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner in civilian court.
The Tanzanian was convicted on just one count of conspiracy to damage or destroy U.S. property and cleared of 276 counts of murder and attempted murder in the bombings that took 224 lives, including 12 Americans.
The jury's verdict could further complicate President Obama's plans to relocate the remaining Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. courts for their trials, as politicians have warned the terror suspects would be accorded rights and protections they wouldn't have if tried by military commissions at the remote U.S. naval base in Southern Cuba.
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said last week, when Ghailani's jury began deliberations, that the administration was close to reaching a decision on where to try the "high-value detainees" at Guantanamo, including confessed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
Opposition remains fierce among many politicians and ordinary citizens to bringing the 9/11 suspects to the scene of their alleged crimes for trial. Critics of the relocation plan Obama outlined after his inauguration argue that U.S. courthouses, especially in New York, could become magnets for other terrorist attacks during the high-profile trials. Many also fear the higher standards for admissible evidence could result in more acquittals and lenient sentences, and the Ghailani outcome is unlikely to alleviate those concerns.
In Ghailani's monthlong trial, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan refused to allow testimony by a key government witness after finding that the information was the product of coercive interrogation by CIA agents at an undisclosed foreign detention site. The proposed witness, Hussein Abebe, told government investigators that he sold explosives to Ghailani that were used in the embassy bombing. Kaplan said the government learned of Abebe as a result of torturing Ghailani.
Prosecutors cast Ghailani, a slight, baby-faced 36-year-old, as a committed terrorist in league with Al Qaeda's murderous leaders. Defense attorneys told the jurors he was duped into helping acquire what the plotters needed to bomb the embassies.
"We respect the jury's verdict and are pleased that Ahmed Ghailani now faces a minimum of 20 years in prison and a potential life sentence for his role in the embassy bombings," Matthew Miller, spokesman for the Justice Department, said of the sole count on which Ghailani was convicted.
Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First, who has monitored both Guantanamo war crimes trials and terror cases tried in civilian courts, praised the Ghailani process as "efficient, fair, and transparent," in contrast with the military commissions.
While Ghailani's trial stirred little protest or disruption, politicians opposed to civilian trials argue that the security risks and costs would be massively higher if New York were the venue for prosecution of the more notorious terror suspects.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has cited figures of over $200 million for security costs to protect the city during any trial of the 9/11 suspects.
"This is the federal government's call and if the trial is in New York, we will provide security," the mayor has said, making clear his preference that the trials be held elsewhere. New York Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo has also come out against hosting the Guantanamo prisoners' trials in his state.
Of the 174 prisoners still being held at Guantanamo, only one remains indicted on war crimes charges. Charges filed against about 20 others during the Bush administration were dropped due to rule changes for the military commissions and new charges have not yet been filed.
Obama vowed after his inauguration to close Guantanamo within a year and move the remaining prisoners to U.S. detention. Holder has denounced the offshore prison and war-crimes court as recruiting tools for foreign terrorist organizations and a wedge between the United States and many allied nations. But after Ghailani's June 2009 transfer from Guantanamo to New York to face trial and the politically inspired outcries that ensued in New York and Washington, Congress in October 2009 enacted a ban on the transfer of terrorism suspects to U.S. soil.
Only five trials have been held at the Guantanamo commissions, and three of them were resolved by plea bargains that gave light sentences to prisoners previously cast as hardened terrorists. By contrast, at least 400 terror suspects have been tried in U.S. civilian courts, most resulting in convictions and lengthy prison terms.
Ghailani was the fifth suspect in the embassy bombings to be put on trial. The other four were convicted and given life sentences in 2001, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Times staff writer Tina Susman in New York and Richard A. Serrano in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.