Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, 36, a Guantanamo Bay detainee and alleged al-Qaeda member involved in the 1998 bombings of the United States’ embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was sentenced to life in prison despite being acquitted on all 276 murder and attempted murder charges and four conspiracy charges that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder brought against him.
Under the verdict by a federal district court in New York last November, however, Ghailani was convicted on one count of conspiracy to destroy government buildings and property for which he faced a minimum of 20 years imprisonment. At the time U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said he would push for a life sentence.
Reacting to the sentence Mr. Holder said it was a vindication of the “strength of the American justice system,” adding, “As this case demonstrates 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.”
A key inflection point in the Ghailani trial, a test case for President Barack Obama’s plan to use civilian courts and ultimately close down Guantanamo Bay prison, came last October when presiding Judge Lewis Kaplan forbade the use of evidence from a witness whose identity was discovered when Ghailani was allegedly tortured while in the custody of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Media reports at the time said that the witness, Hussein Abebe, “would have testified that he had sold Mr. Ghailani the TNT used to blow up the embassy in Dar es Salaam,” and he was described as “a giant witness for the government.” Yet Judge Kaplan had then argued that he had found the witness, who testified in a pre-trial hearing, not credible.
This week’s life sentence follows sharp criticism of the Obama administration that came after Ghailani’s acquittal on murder and attempted murder charges. The White House was also attacked for not persisting with military trials for individuals classified as “enemy combatants.”
The Washington Post quoted 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 as saying, “The punishment fits the crime... 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.”
However government officials have consistently defended the use of civilian trials for strengthening rule of law in complex cases relating to U.S. military engagement abroad.