x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Guantanamo detainee acquitted of all but one charge

The first Guantanamo prisoner to face a civilian trial has been acquitted of all but one of the hundreds of charges against him over the destruction of two US embassies in 1998.

In this June 9, 2009 file courtroom sketch, Guantanamo detainee Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, left, listens as his civilian lawyer Scott Fenstermaker, right, speaks.
In this June 9, 2009 file courtroom sketch, Guantanamo detainee Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, left, listens as his civilian lawyer Scott Fenstermaker, right, speaks.

NEW YORK // The first Guantanamo prisoner to face a civilian trial was acquitted yesterday of all but one of the hundreds of charges against him over the destruction of two US embassies in 1998.

A federal jury convicted Ahmed Ghailani of one count of conspiracy to destroy US property and acquitted him on more than 280 other counts, including one murder count for each of the 224 people killed in the embassy bombings. The anonymous jurors deliberated over seven days.

Ghailani, 36, rubbed his face, smiled and hugged his lawyers after the jurors filed out of the courtroom.

US district judge Lewis Kaplan had thanked the jury, saying the outcome showed that justice "can be rendered calmly, deliberately and fairly by ordinary people — people who are not beholden to any government, even this one."

In a statement, Department of Justice spokesman Matthew Miller said US officials "respect the jury's verdict" and are "pleased" that Ghailani faces a minimum of 20 years and a maximum of life in prison at sentencing on Jan. 25.

US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement that Ghailani "will face, and we will seek, the maximum sentence of life without parole."

Defense attorney Peter Quijano welcomed the acquittals. He said the one conviction would be appealed.

"We still truly believe he is innocent of all these charges," Mr Quijano said. Still, Ghailani, who could have faced a mandatory life sentence if convicted of some of the other counts, "believed he got a fair trial," he added.

Prosecutors had branded Ghailani a cold-blooded terrorist. The defense portrayed him as a clueless errand boy, exploited by senior al Qa'eda operatives and framed by evidence from contaminated crime scenes.

The trial, at a lower Manhattan courthouse, had been viewed as a test for president Barack Obama's administration's aim of putting other terror detainees — including self-professed September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — on trial on US soil.

Prosecutors had alleged Ghailani helped an al Qa'eda cell buy a truck and components for explosives used in a suicide bombing in his native Tanzania on August 7, 1998. The attack in Dar es Salaam and a nearly simultaneous bombing in Nairobi, Kenya, killed 12 Americans.

The day before the bombings, Ghailani boarded a one-way flight to Pakistan under an alias, prosecutors said. While on the run, he spent time in Afghanistan as a cook and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and later as a document forger for al Qa'eda, authorities said.

He was captured in 2004 in Pakistan and was held by the CIA at a secret overseas camp. In 2006, he was transferred to Guantanamo and held until the decision last year to bring him to New York.

Despite losing its key witness, the government was given broad latitude to reference al Qa'eda and bin Laden. It did — again and again.

"This is Ahmed Ghailani. This is al Qa'eda. This is a terrorist. This is a killer," Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Chernoff said in closing arguments.

The jury heard a former al Qa'eda member who has cooperated with the government describe how bin Laden took the group in a more radical direction with a 1998 fatwa, or religious edict, against Americans.

Bin Laden accused the United States of killing innocent women and children in the Middle East and decided "we should do the same," L'Houssaine Kherchtou said on the witness stand.

A prosecutor read aloud the fatwa, which called on Muslims to rise up and "kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they can find it."

Other witnesses described how Ghailani bought gas tanks used in the truck bomb with cash supplied by the terror group, how the FBI found a blasting cap stashed in his room at a cell hideout and how he lied to family members about his escape, telling them he was going to Yemen to start a new life.

The defense never contested that Ghailani knew some of the plotters. But it claimed he was in the dark about their sinister intentions.

"Call him a fall guy. Call him a pawn," Mr Quijano said in his closing argument. "But don't call him guilty."

Mr Quijano argued the investigation in Africa was too chaotic to produce reliable evidence. He said local authorities and the FBI "trampled all over" unsecured crime scenes during searches in Tanzania.

Civil rights advocates said the results of the Ghailani trial were positive.

"The jury heard the evidence and delivered a verdict that — unlike military commissions trials — we can trust," said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project. "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."