Terror detainee largely acquitted

(FILES) An FBI file handout image received on May 26, 2004 shows Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, an Al-Qaeda suspect from Tanzania. The New York judge in the first civilian trial for a former prisoner from Guantanamo Bay on November 17, 2010 answered jurors' request for guidance on a key legal definition.The jury had requested help on Tuesday as they grappled with four weeks' worth of testimony in the terrorism trial of Ahmed Ghailani, a 36-year-old Tanzanian man accused of participating in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. AFP PHOTO/FILES/FBI/HO ++RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS++ (Photo credit should read HO/AFP/Getty Images)
(FILES) An FBI file handout image received on May 26, 2004 shows Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, an Al-Qaeda suspect from Tanzania. The New York judge in the first civilian trial for a former prisoner from Guantanamo Bay on November 17, 2010 answered jurors' request for guidance on a key legal definition.The jury had requested help on Tuesday as they grappled with four weeks' worth of testimony in the terrorism trial of Ahmed Ghailani, a 36-year-old Tanzanian man accused of participating in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. AFP PHOTO/FILES/FBI/HO ++RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS++ (Photo credit should read HO/AFP/Getty Images)
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By Peter Finn
Thursday, November 18, 2010

The first former Guantanamo Bay detainee to be tried in federal criminal court was found guilty on a single conspiracy charge Wednesday but cleared on 284 other counts. The outcome, a surprise, seriously undermines - and could doom - the Obama administration's plans to put other Guantanamo detainees on trial in U.S. civilian courts.

After deliberating for five days, a jury of six men and six women found Ahmed Ghailani, 36, guilty of conspiracy to damage or destroy U.S. property but acquitted him of multiple murder and attempted-murder charges for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.

The Obama administration had hoped that a conviction on most, if not all, of the charges would help clear the way for federal prosecutions of other Guantanamo detainees - including Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators accused of organizing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The administration did not want to rely exclusively on the military commissions that the George W. Bush administration had made a centerpiece of its detention policy.

President Obama's strategy, however, has run into fierce, cross-party opposition in Congress and New York, in part because of concerns that it would be harder to win convictions in civilian court.

The failure to convict Ghailani, a native of Tanzania, on the most serious terrorism charges will bolster the arguments of those who say the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be kept open, both to host military commissions for some prisoners and to hold others indefinitely and without trial under the laws of war.

"You deserve a lot of credit," U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan told the jurors after the verdicts were announced. "You have demonstrated also that American justice can be delivered calmly, deliberately and fairly, by ordinary people - people who are not beholden to any government, including this one."

Ghailani could be sentenced to life in prison and faces a minimum of 20 years, according to the Justice Department.

"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," the department said in a brief statement.

Ghailani's sentence will be imposed by Kaplan, and prosecutors in New York said they would seek life in prison.

Ghailani is the fifth person convicted for his role in the bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Saalam, Tanzania, which killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

But the verdict was still a blow to administration officials, who were quietly confident that Ghailani would be found guilty on all charges. For some, a conviction on only one count amounted to a close call. Had he been cleared of all charges, the administration would probably have been forced to take Ghailani back into military custody rather than see him released.

Ghailani, a former Islamic cleric, was captured in Pakistan in July 2004 and turned over to the CIA, which held him in several secret prisons overseas before he and 13 other high-value detainees were transferred to Cuba in September 2006.


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