The first Guantanamo Bay detainee to be tried in a U.S. criminal court was sentenced to life in prison today, giving the Obama administration sorely needed ammunition to bolster its case that civilian trials are appropriate for terrorism suspects.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan sentenced Ahmed Ghailani to life in prison for his role in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
“Today’s sentencing of Ahmed Ghailani shows yet again the strength of the American justice system in holding terrorists accountable for their actions,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
The case has highlighted the controversial question of whether terrorism suspects can be successfully tried in U.S. civilian courts. The conviction and sentencing of at least one detainee could strengthen President Obama’s contention that the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be closed.
Obama gives his State of the Union address to the nation tonight; in his speech two years ago he pledged to close the detention center.
Critics say that terrorism suspects should be tried before military commissions. But a life sentence is likely the same punishment that Ghailani would have received from a commission.
Holder announced in November 2009 that he planned to bring five terrorism suspects, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, to New York City for criminal trials. But the administration has been prevented from doing so by stiff congressional opposition. Indeed, Congress expressly prohibited the transfer of any more Guantanamo detainees to the United States in the Fiscal 2011 Defense authorization bill.
Obama signed the bill into law even though he opposes the ban, saying he plans to work with Congress this year to lift the restriction.
Holder said he hopes that today’s ruling “brings some measure of justice” to the families and friends of the victims in the embassy attacks.
“Hundreds of individuals have now been convicted in federal court of terrorism or terrorism-related crimes since September 11, 2001,” Holder said. “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.”
The American Civil Liberties Union today again called on the administration to prosecute all terrorism suspects in federal courts.
But critics say that leaving verdicts up to U.S. courts is risky, as Ghailani was only found guilty on a single count of conspiracy in connection with the 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people, including 12 Americans. He was acquitted of more than 280 other charges, including murder.
"The first foreign terrorist detained at Guantanamo Bay to be tried in civilian courts, Ghailani’s trial was a test run for the Obama administration’s plan to try foreign terrorists in U.S. courts. It was also a near-disaster," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in a statement.
"While the administration will no doubt try to spin the verdict as a success, the truth is, this case was a close call," Smith added
Ghailani’s chief lawyer could not be immediately reached for comment.