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Ghailani verdict: debate on military trials

Narayan Lakshman
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Judge forbids evidence obtained through torture

This week's acquittal of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani (36), a Guantanamo Bay detenu and alleged Al-Qaeda member involved in the 1998 bombings of the United States' embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, has fuelled an increasingly shrill political debate on the Obama administration's rejection of military courts for such cases.

Cleared

On Wednesday, a federal district court in Manhattan cleared Mr. Ghailani, originally from Tanzania and captured in Pakistan in 2004, of all 276 murder and attempted murder charges that Attorney- General Eric Holder brought against him, and also four conspiracy charges.

He was, however, convicted on one count of conspiracy to destroy government buildings and property and when he is sentenced in late January still faces a minimum of 20 years imprisonment. He is also facing a life sentence — an outcome that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said he would push for.

An important turning 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 month when presiding Judge Lewis Kaplan forbade the use of evidence from a key witness whose identity was discovered when Mr. Ghailani was allegedly tortured while in the custody of the Central Intelligence Agency.

According to media reports 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 some reports noted that Judge Kaplan had explained that he had found the witness, who testified in a pre-trial hearing, not credible.

The verdict in the case led to sharp criticism of the Obama administration for not persisting with military trials for individuals classified as “enemy combatants”.

Representative Peter King, Republican, reacted to the decision saying, “I am disgusted at the total miscarriage of justice today in Manhattan's federal civilian court. . . This tragic verdict demonstrates the absolute insanity of the Obama Administration's decision to try Al-Qaeda terrorists in civilian courts.”

Complex cases

However, government officials defended the use of civilian trials strengthening rule of law in complex cases relating to U.S. military engagement abroad.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was reported to have said, “A jury of 12 Americans convicted Ahmed Ghailani of a terrorist conspiracy. Miscarriage of justice? No, it's called the rule of law.” Mr. Crowley added, “The Ghailani case shows America practices what it preaches, protecting our national security through a transparent legal system.”

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