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Plotter in U.S. embassy bombings sentenced to life in prison

Lawyers for Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani sought a lesser penalty because he was allegedly tortured by U.S. authorities and was acquitted of the vast majority of charges against him in the deadly 1998 blasts in Kenya and Tanzania.

January 26, 2011|By Geraldine Baum and Richard A. Serrano, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New York and Washington — Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was sentenced Tuesday in New York to life in prison for his role in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, making him the first terrorist to be plucked from the prison camp at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and successfully prosecuted in a civilian court.

The term of life without parole probably will boost the position of the Obama administration, eager to close the Caribbean military prison and move prisoners to civilian courts in the U.S. The administration argues that suspected terrorists can safely be tried, convicted and sentenced in a U.S. civilian courtroom — including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind, and other alleged plotters in the attacks.

It has been more than a year since Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. postponed plans for a New York trial for the Sept. 11 plotters, and now with the Ghailani trial over and the midterm elections done, a decision is likely to come soon on where that larger trial is held.

"Hundreds of individuals have now been convicted in federal court of terrorism or terrorism-related crimes since Sept. 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."

Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, said the life sentence proved that "federal courts work, military commissions don't."

The jury in the Ghailani trial, convened in the same courthouse where the Department of Justice had hoped to try the top five alleged Sept. 11 plotters, acquitted him last fall of 284 counts of murder and conspiracy, and convicted him of only a single charge of conspiracy to damage or destroy U.S. government buildings and property.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) called the case a "near disaster" in that U.S. prosecutors "barely won a guilty verdict. The trial proved what Republicans have been saying all along: that civilian trials grant foreign terrorists the same rights as U.S. citizens. This makes it harder for prosecutors to obtain a conviction."

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan cast aside suggestions that Ghailani should receive a lesser sentence, perhaps 20 years, because he was tortured by U.S. agents and acquitted of so many charges.

"Whatever Mr. Ghailani suffered at the hands of the CIA and others in our government, the impact on him pales in comparison to the suffering" of the victims, the judge said.

He called the bombings "a cold-blooded killing and maiming of innocent people on an enormous scale.... It wrecked the lives of thousands of others.... The very purpose of it was to create terror."

In all, 224 people, including 12 Americans, were killed in the August 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya.

Because the 36-year-old Tanzanian was acquitted on all but the one count, his defense lawyers had urged Kaplan to overturn the single guilty count. But with government evidence that Ghailani had purchased the TNT and the truck that carried the bomb to the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the judge refused.

And prosecutors stressed that Ghailani hurriedly left Nairobi, Kenya, the site of the second bombing, carrying multiple passports and a cellphone shared by other conspirators — all signs, they said, that he was deeply involved in planning the attacks. There also was evidence indicating that he had served as a bodyguard to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and had met with some of the men who became the Sept. 11 hijackers.

But lead defense attorney Peter Quijano, in a newly unsealed court filing, said his client deserved a lighter sentence because he provided information to U.S. agents and was repeatedly tortured "at the hands of the United States government" — shaved, stripped, diapered, hooded, strip-searched and deprived of sleep.

Ghailani did not address the court, nor did he look at any of the survivors or victims' relatives, including 11 who testified about the blasts and their shattered lives. Dressed in a light blue button-down shirt and gray slacks, the defendant simply stared down at his hands.

James Ndeda, a Nairobi embassy worker whose skull was fractured in the attack, asked for a 224-year sentence, one year for each of the dead. "I know he may not live for that 224 years," Ndeda said, "but I know if a [criminal] dies in prison in Africa, his grave is chained until the period elapses."

Yasemin Pressley and her husband, Frank, were both injured in the Nairobi bombing. He has undergone surgeries to repair his jaw and still lives in agony. She turned toward Ghailani and said, "If we are going to live with pain, also should he."

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

richard.serrano@latimes.com

Baum reported from New York and Serrano from Washington.

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