When a federal court jury handed up its verdict in the trial of accused terrorist Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani over the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa, it gave ammunition to both sides in the dispute over whether accused terrorists should be tried in civilian courts. The jury convicted him on one count of conspiring to destroy government property and acquitted him on 284 others, including every murder count.
To The Wall Street Journal, the case confirmed that “unlawful enemy combatants captured on the battlefield deserve to be held in Guantanamo and tried in military commissions.” It called the outcome a “legal and security fiasco.” Republican critics agreed, saying the verdict proved that it was an Obama administration mistake to try accused terrorists in civilian courts.
Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller called the conviction “another in a long line of verdicts where federal civilian courts have shown the ability to deliver fair trials and long sentences.” Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of Federal District Court in Manhattan told the jurors they had demonstrated that “American justice can be rendered calmly, deliberately and fairly by ordinary people, people who are not beholden to any government, not even ours.”
Mr. Ghailani faces a sentence of 20 years to life imprisonment. And Judge Kaplan said that even if found completely not guilty, he could probably be held legally as a prisoner of war until hostilities ended.
The defendant was a 36-year-old Tanzanian captured in Pakistan in 2004. U.S. officials held him in one or more of their secret and illegal “black” prisons and transferred him to Guantanamo in 2006. He confessed, probably under “enhanced interrogation,” but later renounced the confession.
Judge Kaplan barred prosecutors from using a witness who would have testified that he sold Mr. Ghailani the TNT used to blow up the embassy in Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital. The defendant had named the witness under CIA coercion, a fact that probably would have caused a military tri-bunal to rule the same. So the 12 anonymous jurors had to rely on largely circumstantial evidence that Mr. Ghailani had helped buy and handle the truck and gas tanks used in the attacks, which killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.
The trial in Manhattan confounded critics who had warned that jurors and the public could be endangered, that a prisoner might turn to soapbox oratory, and that the case might have become involved with controversy over the harsh detention and interrogation methods. The trial was peaceful. The verdict, light as it was, proved tougher than most of the few handed down so far by the military tribunals in Guantanamo, which face the same problem of evidence tainted by torture.
The trial was a success for the American criminal justice system and should be a model for the prosecution of the professed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, detained since 2003 and reportedly subjected repeatedly to waterboarding. Civilian justice is capable of trying that case, too.