x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Of 280 counts, a single guilty verdict in terror trial

Outcome of the case against the sole Guantanamo Bay detainee to be tried in a civilian court casts doubts on the Obama administration's plan to prosecutre Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind.

NEW YORK // The Obama administration's attempt to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of the September 11 attacks, in a civilian court was left further complicated yesterday after a jury convicted another terrorism defendant on only one conspiracy charge but acquitted him of 280 other charges.

The conviction in a Manhattan court on Wednesday of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the only person transferred from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for trial in the United States, did little to move Barack Obama closer to fulfil his early presidential promise to close the prison complex and try more al Qa'eda suspects in civil courts.

But opponents of military commissions said Ghailani's trial proved it was possible to proceed in civilian courts even when defendants had suffered harsh interrogation techniques and years of detention at Guantanamo.

Ghailani, 36, was accused of conspiring in the 1998 al Qa'eda bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.

After a four-week trial and four-and-a-half days of deliberations by the jury, Ghailani was cleared of 276 murder and attempted murder counts and four conspiracy charges.

He was found guilty of only one relatively minor charge of conspiracy to damage or destroy US property with explosives. He faces a minimum of 20 years in prison and prosecutors said they would seek life imprisonment when he is sentenced in January.

Even before the Ghailani verdict, senior administration officials were quoted in the US media as saying Mr Mohammed and other conspirators in the September 11 attacks would probably remain in military detention without trial for the foreseeable future.

Just more than a year ago, Eric Holder, US attorney general, announced Mr Mohammed would face a federal trial in lower Manhattan near the site where the World Trade Center stood. But a public outcry raising fears over security concerns and costs forced the administration to put those plans on hold.

Republican gains in congressional elections this month have placed even tougher obstacles before Mr Obama's Democratic agenda.

Michael Bloomberg, the Republican New York City mayor, had initially supported trying Mr Mohammed in his city but has since changed his mind. Mr Bloomberg has said disruption to neighbourhoods and high security costs are major concerns.

"In other words, we've always said we could safely host a trial, but have also said would rather not," Stu Loeser, the mayor's spokesman, said yesterday.

After the Ghailani verdict, civil rights groups continued to press their case against military commissions, which were first touted under the former president George W Bush to allow more flexibility on the admission of evidence stemming from harsh interrogation.

"The jury heard the evidence and delivered a verdict that, unlike military commission trials, we can trust," said Hina Shamsi, the director of the National Security Project and the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement on Wednesday. "We should be proud of a system that isn't set up to simply rubber stamp the government's case no matter how little reliable evidence there may be."

But Peter King, the Republican representative likely to chair the homeland security committee in January, insisted all terrorism suspects should be tried in military tribunals. "This a tragic wake-up call to the Obama administration to immediately abandon its ill-advised plan to try Guantanamo terrorists, like the admitted 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in federal civilian courts," he said. "We must treat them as wartime enemies and try them in military commissions at Guantanamo."

Ghailani, like Mr Mohammed, was subjected to harsh interrogation and detention in secret CIA prisons, as well as Guantanamo. Ghailani fled to Pakistan the day before the embassy bombings and spent time in Afghanistan as a cook and bodyguard for the al Qa'eda leader Osama bin Laden.

 

sdevi@thenational.ae