NEW YORK -- Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday 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.
For the Obama administration, eager to close the Caribbean prison and move many of the prisoners to civilian courts in the United States, the sentence marks a much-needed victory in its efforts to convince the American public that terrorists like Ghailani can safely be tried, convicted and sentenced in U.S. civilian courts.
The pressure was particularly great in the Ghailani case, because a U.S. District Court jury in Manhattan, the same courthouse where the Department of Justice has hoped to try the top five plotters in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, acquitted Ghailani last fall of more than 280 counts of murder and conspiracy, and convicted him of only a single charge of conspiracy to destroy government buildings and property.
"Finally, 12 and a half years after those devastating and despicable attacks, Ahmed Ghailani will pay for his crime," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
And Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. quickly indicated that the Ghailani case is proof that the federal civilian courts are often the right place to hold terrorist trials.
"Hundreds of individuals have now been convicted in federal court of terrorism or terrorism-related crimes since Sept. 11, 2001," Holder said in a statement released shortly after the Ghailani sentence was handed down.
"As this case demonstrates," he said, "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."
Judge Lewis A. Kaplan delivered the maximum sentence: life with no parole. And he cast aside arguments that Ghailani should have received a lesser sentence, perhaps 20 years, because he was tortured by U.S. agents.
"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.
He called the bombings "a cold-blooded killing and maiming of innocent people on an enormous scale. ... It wrecked the lives of thousands of others. ... The very purpose of it was to create terror."
In all, 224 people were killed in the August 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya.
Ghailani did not address the court, and he did he look at any of the victims and their families, including 11 victims and witnesses who testified about the bombing and their lives since that day. Ghailani, 36, displayed no emotion at all.
Because the 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.
And prosecutors stressed to the judge that Ghailani hurriedly left Kenya, the site of the second bombing, carrying multiple passports and a cell phone shared by other conspirators -- all signs that Ghailani was deeply involved in the planning of the attacks.
But lead defense attorney Peter Quijano, in a newly unsealed court filing, said his client was deserving of a lighter sentence because he was repeatedly tortured "at the hands of the United States government" in violation of the Geneva Conventions against such harsh treatment.
The 48-page filing from Quijano said Ghailani was shaved, stripped, diapered, hooded and at various times strip-searched, deprived of sleep and slapped in the face to keep him awake. Memories of the anal strip searches so upset Ghailani, the lawyer said, that he nearly was unable to attend his own trial until he managed to "hold those fears at bay."
Quijano also said Ghailani eventually cooperated with U.S. authorities. Prosecutors, however, said statements made by Ghailani actually were "voluntary."
Quijano in his filing also cited a letter from Ghailani's defense attorney at the Guantanamo Bay prison, Marine Corps Col. Jeffrey P. Colwell, suggesting that Ghailani had been manipulated by terrorist leaders.
"Mr. Ghailani is not a radical jihadist, a terrorist, or a danger to society," Colwell maintained. "Instead, Mr. Ghailani's case is representative of how deceitfully terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda, truly operate, preying on the weak, the poor, and the disenfranchised to do much of their dirty work."
(Baum reported from New York, Serrano from Washington.)
(c) 2011, Tribune Co.
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