NEW YORK – Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison for his role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa – making him the first terrorist to be plucked from the prison camp at the U.S. Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and successfully prosecuted in a civilian court.
The term of life without parole likely will boost the argument of the Obama administration, eager to close the Caribbean military prison and move prisoners to civilian courts in the U.S., that terrorists can safely be tried, convicted and sentenced in a U.S. civilian courtroom – including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other plotters in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
It has been more than a year since Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. postponed plans for a New York trial for the Sept. 11 plotters. With the Ghailani trial over and the midterm elections done, a decision likely will come soon on where that larger trial is held.
“Hundreds of individuals have now been convicted in federal court of terrorism or terrorism-related crimes since Sept. 11, 2001,” Holder said.
Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, said the life sentence proves that “federal courts work, military commissions don’t.”
The jury in the Ghailani trial, convened in the same courthouse where the Department of Justice had hoped to try the top five Sept. 11 plotters, acquitted him last fall of 284 counts of murder and conspiracy, and convicted him of only a single charge of conspiracy to destroy government buildings and property. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called the case a “near disaster” in that they “barely won a guilty verdict.”
Judge Lewis A. Kaplan cast aside suggestions that Ghailani should receive a lesser sentence, perhaps 20 years, because he was tortured by U.S. agents and acquitted of so many charges.
“Whatever Mr. Ghailani suffered at the hands of the CIA and others in our government, the impact on him pales in comparison to the suffering” of the victims, the judge said.
In all, 224 people were killed in the August 1998 blasts in Tanzania and Kenya.
Because the 36-year-old defendant nearly escaped conviction but for the one count, his defense lawyers had urged Kaplan to overturn the single guilty count. But with government evidence that Ghailani had purchased the TNT and the truck that carried the bomb to the embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the judge refused.