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U.S. civilian court acquits ex-Guantanamo detainee of all major terrorism charges

The verdict involving a suspect in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa may complicate efforts to try Sept. 11 defendants in nonmilitary U.S. courts. But Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani may still face life in prison without parole for his conviction on a lesser count.

November 18, 2010|By Carol J. Williams and Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Los Angeles and New York — A New York federal jury acquitted alleged Al Qaeda accomplice Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani on Wednesday of all major terrorism charges in the 1998 suicide bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

In the first trial of a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner in civilian court, the Tanzanian was convicted of one count of conspiracy to damage or destroy U.S. property but cleared of 276 counts of murder and attempted murder. The government said it would seek the maximum sentence of life without parole on the conspiracy count.

The verdict could presage trouble for President Obama's plans to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba and bring its remaining detainees to the United States for trial. Officials who want military commissions to try the men argue that terrorism suspects would get too many rights and protections in civilian court.

"This tragic verdict demonstrates the absolute insanity of the Obama administration's decision to try Al Qaeda terrorists in civilian courts," Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said, calling the Ghailani ruling "a total miscarriage of justice."

As the jury in the case began deliberations last week, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said the administration was close to reaching a decision on where to try Guantanamo's "high-value detainees," including confessed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

Opposition remains fierce among many New Yorkers to bringing the Sept. 11 suspects to the scene of their alleged crimes. Critics warn that the city could become a magnet for other terrorist attacks during the trials. Many also fear that stricter standards for admissible evidence could result in more acquittals and lenient sentences.

In Ghailani's monthlong trial, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan refused to allow a key government witness to testify after finding that the information had been produced by torture at an undisclosed CIA foreign detention site.

Prosecutors cast Ghailani, 36, as a committed terrorist in league with Al Qaeda's murderous leaders. Defense attorneys said he was duped into helping acquire what the plotters needed to bomb the embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Court-watchers had feared a mistrial was in the offing when one juror told Kaplan that she wanted to be dismissed from the panel, saying she was the lone holdout and felt "attacked" for her unspecified position. Kaplan sent the jurors back with instructions to work toward a unanimous decision.

Defense attorney Peter Quijano said he would appeal Ghailani's sole conviction but thanked "this courageous jury and judge" on behalf of his client.

U.S. Atty. Preet Bharara said the government would seek the maximum sentence of life without parole.

"We respect the jury's verdict and are pleased that Ahmed Ghailani now faces a minimum of 20 years in prison and a potential life sentence for his role in the embassy bombings," said Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department.

Sentencing is set for January.

Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First, who has monitored both Guantanamo military commissions and terrorism cases in civilian courts, praised Ghailani's trial as "efficient, fair and transparent," in contrast with the military tribunals.

Ghailani's trial stirred little protest or disruption, but politicians argue that the security risks and costs would be massively higher if the more notorious terrorism suspects were prosecuted in New York.

Last year, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg estimated the city's cost of trying the five highest-profile terrorism suspects in New York at $215 million for the first year and $200 million for subsequent years, mostly to pay for extra police patrols.

But, the mayor said, "this is the federal government's call, and if the trial is in New York, we will provide security."

New York Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo opposes trying Guantanamo prisoners in his state.

Bill Martel, a professor of international security studies at Tufts University's Fletcher School, said that the Obama administration's announcement a year ago that the Sept. 11 suspects would be tried in New York triggered resistance because it was ill-timed.

"The mistake that people make in the policy world is that they lose touch with public opinion," Martel said.

Other analysts contend that trials in the U.S. would be cathartic.

"Yes, it's a challenge to New York, but we are up to it, just like we were to everything else that has happened since 9/11," said Karen Greenberg, head of the Center on Law and Security at New York University's law school. "It's important that New York overcome the sense that we're vulnerable and [show] we can take care of ourselves."

Of the 174 prisoners still at Guantanamo, only one remains indicted for war crimes. Charges filed against about 20 others during the George W. Bush administration were dropped as the military commission rules were changed.

Only five trials have been held by military commissions at Guantanamo, and all have resulted in conviction. In the nine years since the Sept. 11 attacks, at least 400 terrorism suspects have been tried in U.S. civilian courts. Most were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

carol.williams@latimes.com

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

Williams reported from Los Angeles and Baum from New York. Times staff writer Tina Susman in New York and Richard A. Serrano in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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