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Trial spurs fresh debate over terror detainees

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Trial spurs fresh debate over terror detainees

Trend set by Ghailani acquittal could allow someone branded dangerous by government to be acquitted, experts say

First civilian trial

Image Credit: AFP

This courtroom drawing shows Tanzanian Ahmed Ghailani (second left) in court with his defence team on Wednesdayin New York. Ghailiani faces a minimum sentence of 20 years after his conspiracy conviction in the first civilian trial of aformer Guantanamo Bay inmate, prosecutors said.

Published: 00:00 November 20, 2010

Gulf News


New York: The near-acquittal of the first Guantanamo detainee tried in federal court is reigniting the debate over whether to bring terrorism suspects to justice in the civilian legal system. The Obama administration made it clear on Thursday that its position has not changed.

Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in Washington that the administration will continue to rely on a combination of civilian courts and military tribunals to handle terrorism cases.

His comments came a day after Ahmad Ghailani was acquitted in federal court in New York on all but one of more than 280 charges that he took part in the Al Qaida bombings of two US embassies in Africa. The twin attacks in 1998 killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans.

Miller described the conspiracy conviction as "another in a long line of verdicts where federal civilian courts have shown the ability to deliver fair trials and long sentences." And White House spokesman Robert Gibbs pointed out that Ghailani still faces a heavy penalty that will ensure he "isn't going to threaten American lives" — a minimum of 20 years in prison and a maximum of life.

Still, the outcome turned up the volume on the chorus of Republicans and other opponents of civilian trials for terrorism suspects picked up on the battlefield and sent to Guantanamo after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Among those awaiting trial is the professed mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad.

Some legal experts warned that Wednesday's verdict damaged the argument for trying detainees in civilian courts. They said the case could make the Obama administration more selective in deciding which suspects to put on trial, because of the risk that someone branded dangerous by the government could be acquitted.

Horse trading

"They really needed this case to go off without a hitch, to be a showcase. Instead, you have the opposite," said Aitan Goelman, a former federal prosecutor in New York now in private practice in Washington. "Civilian juries do things," he said. "There's horse trading in jury verdicts." Michigan Republican Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said the verdict confirms that the Obama administration's decision to try Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts "was a mistake and will not work."

"This case was supposed to be the easy one, and the Obama administration failed — the Gitmo cases from here on out will only get more difficult," he said in a statement. Civil rights groups and Democrats countered that the prosecution proves the civilian legal system works, even for Guantanamo detainees.

Laura Pitter, a counterterrorism adviser for Human Rights Watch who monitored the Ghailani trial, said the verdict "will have finality and be viewed as credible and legitimate by observers and the rest of the world."

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