In a major setback for Obama administration plans to try terror suspects in US civilian courts, a New York jury on Wednesday acquitted a Tanzanian man of 284 counts related to his alleged involvement in Al Qaeda terrorism.
The jury convicted Ahmed Ghailani of a single conspiracy charge for his role in the 1998 truck bombing of the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
But the jurors rejected the vast majority of the government’s case against Mr. Ghailani.
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The trial is significant because Ghailani is the first Guantánamo detainee to be transferred to the US for a civilian trial. It was seen a test case by administration officials to clear the way for similar civilian trials for other Al Qaeda terror suspects – including accused 9/11 mastermind Khaled Shaikh Mohammed.
Some analysts now predict that Mr. Mohammed will likely remain at Guantánamo and face a military commission proceeding – or no proceeding at all – rather than a federal judge and jury in the US.
Federal prosecutors had alleged that Ghailani was a terrorist and killer who knowingly helped an Al Qaeda terror cell in Africa assemble the ingredients for a deadly truck bombing. The Aug. 7, 1998 attack on the US embassy in Dar es Salaam was coordinated with the nearly simultaneous truck bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. In all, 224 people were killed.
Four men who participated in the bombings were convicted in federal court in New York and are serving life prison sentences.
Ghailani faces a sentence of 20 years to life in prison on the terror conspiracy charge. Sentencing is set for Jan. 25.
Ghailani had admitted during US government interrogations that he purchased the TNT, the truck, and other components used for the bombing. But he denied that he knew in advance of the bomb plot.
At the trial, Ghailani’s lawyer portrayed him as a pawn, and potential fall guy for the real plotters, and the real terrorists.
The prosecution’s case was undercut somewhat when US District Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled before the trial that the government could not call a potential witness from Tanzania because they had learned of the witness during harsh interrogation of Ghailani.
The judge ruled that because the information had been obtained under coercive questioning it could not be used by the government to advance its criminal case.
After the verdict, Judge Kaplan thanked the jury and, according to the Associated Press, told them that justice “can be rendered calmly, deliberately, and fairly by ordinary people – people who are not beholden to any government, even this one.”
Ghailani’s lawyer, Peter Quijano, told the Associated Press that his client believed he got a fair trial. He said the conspiracy conviction would be appealed.
“We still truly believe he is innocent of all these charges,” Mr. Quijano told the Associated Press.