The first Guantanamo Bay detainee to be tried in U.S. federal court under the Obama administration was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday for his role in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the sentencing of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a 36-year-old Tanzanian, was a vindication of the "strength of the American justice system."
"As this case demonstrates," Holder said in a statement, "we will not rest in bringing to justice terrorists who seek to harm the American people, and we will use every tool available to the government to do so."
But opponents of closing the Guantanamo prison, who favor the use of military commissions to try terrorism suspects, said the trial exposed the real risk of acquittal when detainees are brought into civilian court.
"The punishment fits the crime," said Kirk Lippold, a senior fellow at Military Families United and former commander of the USS Cole, which was attacked by al-Qaeda in 2000. "What cannot be forgotten from this trial is that the verdict handed down in November represented a mockery of justice and is further proof that civilian trials for enemy combatants are a foolish and misguided strategy."
Ghailani was convicted of one count of conspiracy to destroy government buildings but was acquitted of 284 other counts of murder and conspiracy. The nearly simultaneous attacks on U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and began al-Qaeda's assault on U.S. interests.
"It was a cold-blooded killing and maiming of innocent people on an enormous scale," said U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, speaking to a packed courtroom in Manhattan, according to the Associated Press. "The purpose of the crime was to create terror by causing death and destruction on a scale that was hard to imagine in 1998 when it occurred."
The courtroom included survivors and relatives of the victims, both African and American. "It was a very emotional hearing," said Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First, who was at the sentencing.
James Ndeda of Nairobi, whose skull was fractured in the attack, asked Kaplan to impose one year in prison for each victim.
"Ghailani and his accomplices shattered our lives," said Ndeda, one of 11 victims and relatives who spoke, according to the AP.
The defendant chose not to speak on his own behalf before sentencing. His lawyers had portrayed him as an unwitting dupe of those who organized the attack. But prosecutors said he was a "remorseless terrorist."
Ghailani was first brought to the United States in June 2009, just a few months after Obama issued an executive order calling for the closure of the military detention center in Cuba within 12 months. Bipartisan political opposition on Capitol Hill has almost completely overwhelmed that plan, and no other federal trials of Guantanamo detainees are expected, at least not before the next presidential election.
Civil liberties groups said the Obama administration should draw courage from the Ghailani verdict to revitalize its original plan to close Guantanamo.
"Federal courts are not only the right place but the most effective place to prosecute terrorism suspects," said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project. "As the Obama administration reportedly considers prosecuting some terrorism suspects in the illegitimate military commissions, we hope it will heed the lesson of the Ghailani case - federal courts work, military commissions don't."
But Charles D. "Cully" Stimson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs in the George W. Bush administration, said the Ghailani case was no precedent for more federal trials of Guantanamo detainees.
"Unlike every other person at Guantanamo, Ghailani is different," Stimson said. "It is a pre-9/11 case, and almost all of the evidence was gathered before 9/11."
Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said, "This was a difficult case for a number of reasons." He didn't elaborate, but Ghailani was held in secret custody by the CIA and subjected to coercive interrogations. The prosecution did not try to introduce any of those statements, and a key witness was excluded because the government learned of him from the CIA's questioning of Ghailani.
In the end, Ghailani received the same sentence that he would have if he had been convicted on all counts. He "will never again breathe free air," Bharara said.