In what looks like a setback for the Obama administration in matter of trial of terrorism suspects in civil court, the first suspect transferred from Guantanamo military prison to face a U.S. civilian trial was found not guilty by a Manhattan federal court jury on all but one charge in the 1998 African embassy bombings.
Last Wednesday, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, 36, a Tanzanian from Zanzibar who had been accused of conspiring in the 1998 al Qaeda bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people including 12 Americans, was found not guilty on 284 of 285 charges
Ghailani was first indicted on Dec.16, 1998, by a federal grand jury in the Southern District of New York. In that indictment and subsequent superseding indictments, Ghailani was charged with conspiring with Osama Bin Laden and other members of al Qaeda to kill American nationals and with several related crimes in connection with the twin bombings of Aug. 7, 1998, that destroyed the American Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Ghailani was also charged with 224 individual murder counts for each of the victims of the two embassy bombings.
At the trial, evidence was produced that each of the embassies was attacked by suicide bombers driving large truck bombs packed with approximately 1,000 pounds of TNT. Ghailani purchased the truck as well as tanks of oxygen and acetylene gas that were used in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania. He also stored explosive detonators that were used in the bomb at his residence.
Evidence was also produced that the day before the bombings, using a fake passport in an assumed name, Ghailani flew from Nairobi, Kenya to Pakistan in a coordinated escape from Africa. Two other al Qaeda operatives, a senior operations leader and an explosives expert who had traveled between Kenya and Tanzania in the weeks before the bombings departed Africa for Pakistan on the same flight as Ghailani. Those operatives were also involved with the bombings.
Though accused of 285 counts of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy, Ghailani was convicted by the jury of one count of conspiring to damage or destory U.S. property.
Ghailani faces a minimum of 20 years in prison and a possible life sentence. Sentencing is scheduled on Jan. 25, 2011.
Though U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has praised the agents who so thoroughly investigated this case and the prosecutors who so ably tried it, Republicans and some of President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats have questioned the president's new approach that favors military tribunals in some cases for terrorism suspects and civilian trials in others.
Most Republicans say all terrorism suspects should be tried in military tribunals as they are enemy combatants who had attacked or plotted against the United States and feel it's an absolute insanity of the Obama Administration's decision to try al Qaeda terrorists in civilian courts.
Ghailani's acquittal in a federal court...is all the proof we need that the administration's approach to prosecuting terrorists has been deeply misguided and indeed potentially harmful as a matter of national security, Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
Democratic Senator Jim Webb also said that the verdict showed that those charged with crimes of war should not be prosecuted in federal courts but in military trials.
The military commissions balance robust procedural and substantive rights for the defendants, including prohibiting the introduction of evidence obtained through torture, against the reality that these are not common criminals but violators of the law of war, Webb said.
However, the Justice Department said the conviction of Ghailani and a 20-plus year prison sentence was proof that the federal courts could handle such cases and that the Obama administration would continue pursuing cases in both federal and military courts.
We're going to continue to work through these cases, we're going to bring them to trial in federal courts and military commissions where appropriate...to obtain justice for victims, department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.