1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

First civilian trial

November 18, 2010

In the first civilian trial of a former Guantanamo Bay inmate, a New York jury has acquitted the accused on over 200 charges, convicting on one. The defendant faces 20 years in jail, but some say the case is a failure.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani
Ghailani faces at least 20 years in prison, or a life sentenceImage: AP

A civilian jury has acquitted a former Guantanamo Bay inmate on multiple terror charges, but convicted him for plotting to bomb the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Among other charges, the defendant was cleared of 276 counts of attempted murder, due in part to key evidence being deemed inadmissible by the court.

"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," a spokesman for the US justice department said after the trial.

Critics of President Barack Obama's policy of trying Guantanamo Bay detainees in civilian courts, rather than by military tribunal, say the trial has highlighted the flaws in this strategy.

"We are at war with al Qaeda," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said after the verdict was announced. "Members of the organization, and their associates, should be treated as warriors, not common criminals. We put our nation at risk by criminalizing the war."

Ahmed Ghailani's case had been chosen for civilian trial, in part, because it was deemed one where a conviction was considered particularly probable. A further 174 terror suspects are being held at the military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, awaiting trial.

"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 Mohammed, held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba," Senator Graham said.

Entrenched stances

Prisoners kneeling in rows at Guantanamo Bay
Civil trials can be complicated after defendants have been denied rightsImage: picture alliance/dpa

Arguably the biggest setback for the prosecution was an initial ruling from the judge, Lewis Kaplan, not to admit testimony from the government's star witness, who had been expected to say he sold Ghailani explosives. Kaplan said Hussein Abebe could not take to the stand because he had been identified through information obtained from Ghailani while under extreme duress in CIA custody.

"The civil court also indicated that the statements which could have led to a tougher sentence probably wouldn't have been accepted by a military tribunal either," a professor in political and American sciences at the University of Jena, Michael Dreyer, told Deutsche Welle. "That's because the evidence was obtained, in part, by way of torture - or rather by what is sometimes called 'enhanced interrogation techniques' in the US, but is generally called 'torture' in the rest of the world."

Dreyer said that the issue has become more about politics than legal issues, pointing to Supreme Court rulings saying that Guantanamo detainees should still have the right to a civilian trial under US law. He believes that the US opposition primarily sees the issue as a way to undermine Obama's policies on dealing with terror suspects.

"I think the battle lines are so clearly drawn now that genuine factors are hardly going to change anybody's mind. People have already formed their opinions, and are likely to stick to them."

During the trial, prosecutors sought to portray the defendant as a co-conspirator who helped an al Qaeda bomber prepare the truck bombs which slammed almost simultaneously into the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people and injuring thousands more.

Ghailani's defense attorney, Peter Quijano, called no witnesses of his own, but cross-examined state witnesses vigorously, and described his client as an innocent dupe, who was used by al Qaeda, but knew little or nothing of their intentions.

"At the start of this trial, we believed that Ahmed was truly innocent of all of these charges. Please understand that we still truly believe he is innocent of all of these charges," Quijano told reporters outside the court.

Domestic dissatisfaction, international support

The bomb site at the US embassy in Kenya
Ghailani was part of the bomb attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and TanzaniaImage: AP

Human Rights group Amnesty International, which has vehemently opposed the detainment center at Guantanamo Bay since its inception, praised the trial, and called on the US to ensure all future cases are tried in civilian courts.

"US politicians who are opposed to trials in federal courts for Guantanamo detainees have chosen to ignore the conviction and are arguing that Ahmed Ghailani's acquittal on the other charges demonstrates that civilian criminal trials are inappropriate," Amnesty's Bob Freer said.

"If the only procedure that critics of ordinary criminal trials would accept is one that guarantees convictions regardless of evidence, then what has been demonstrated is a gross failure on their part to commit to the most basic principles of fairness."

Speaking to Deutsche Welle, relatives of some of the victims of the 1998 attacks in which Ghailani played a part admitted they had hoped for a more clear-cut verdict.

"We accepted the verdict as it is, even if we have been affected, because we can do nothing - although we are not happy with the decision," Shaaban Said Mtullya, whose wife was killed in the blasts, said.

"You can be affected in such a way that no compensation can be paid for it. And even if the attacker will be sentenced to death, that will change nothing. So what you can do is to forgive and move forward with your life," said Okia Omtata, who lost his nephew.

"We will seek the maximum sentence of life without parole when (Ghailani) is sentenced in January," US prosecuting attorney Preet Bharara said after the trial in New York.

Author: Mark Hallam (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner

Skip next section Explore more