Guantanamo inmate cleared of terror charges

2010-11-18 11:41

New York - The first former Guantanamo Bay inmate to be tried in civilian court was cleared of terror charges on Wednesday, but could still face life in prison for his role in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies.

The surprise verdict was the latest hit to already dim prospects of trying other Guantanamo prisoners - including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the September 11 2001 attacks - in US civilian courts rather than military tribunals.

After five days of deliberations, a federal jury in US District Court in New York found Ahmed Ghailani guilty of conspiracy to destroy US property, which carries a sentence of at least 20 years and up to life in prison, but cleared him of all other 285 murder, conspiracy and other charges.

Sentencing was set for January 25.

The decision marked a blow to President Barack Obama's plans to close down Guantanamo, the notorious US military base where 174 detainees remain, and move inmates into the civilian justice system. It was also likely to revive the acrimonious debate over how the closure should take place.

"We are at war with al-Qaeda. Members of the organisation, and their associates, should be treated as warriors, not common criminals. We put our nation at risk by criminalising the war," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said in a statement, adding he was "deeply disappointed" with the verdict.

Offer for Obama

"Going forward, I once again strongly encourage the Obama administration to use military commissions to prosecute enemy combatants, particularly the 9/11 conspirators like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."

The South Carolina Republican previously made an offer to Obama, saying he could convince Republicans to vote in support of closing the detention centre if the president agrees to try the "war on terror" detainees in military tribunals.

Opponents of civilian trials have questioned the ability and cost to provide the necessary security, while some observers say it is problematic to prosecute defendants who have been deprived of all rights, often for years, in the same way as ordinary suspects.

During the four-week trial, prosecutors painted the baby-faced 36-year-old as a scheming plotter who helped al-Qaeda bombers prepare the truck bombs that slammed almost simultaneously into the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies, killing 224 people and injuring thousands more.

His defence attorney, Peter Quijano, called no witnesses and Ghailani did not take the stand.

Instead, through cross-examination and a blistering closing argument, Quijano sought to undermine the credibility of witnesses produced by the government and he portrayed Ghailani as an innocent dupe who was used by al-Qaeda, but who knew nothing of the plot.

Fair and transparent

Ghailani "will face, and we will seek, the maximum sentence of life without parole when he is sentenced in January", said US Attorney Preet Bharara.

Daphne Eviatar, from Human Rights First, said the trial demonstrated the federal court system was "efficient, fair and transparent", and there was no need to keep Guantanamo open.

"The questions today's verdict raises are why the government has not tried all terror suspects in federal court and when will the government announce additional prosecutions," she added.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also urged Obama to not bow to pressure from lawmakers and other politicians to try Guantanamo detainees in the military commissions system, which has only yielded five convictions thus far.

"Federal courts are not only the right place but the most effective place to prosecute terrorism suspects," said ACLU National Security Project director Hina Shamsi.

But sceptics could seize on the fact that the presiding judge, Lewis Kaplan, ruled at the outset of the trial to exclude the government's star witness, who had been expected to testify he sold Ghailani explosives.

Kaplan said Hussein Abebe was inadmissible as a witness because he was identified through information obtained from Ghailani while under extreme duress in CIA custody.

The ruling severely weakened the government's case. It also struck at the core of what many consider to be the problem with applying regular legal codes to defendants who, like Ghailani, have been held in secret CIA prisons and subjected to torture.