Life sentence bolsters Obama terror strategy

  • Article by: GERALDINE BAUM and RICHARD A. SERRANO , Tribune Washington Bureau
  • Updated: January 25, 2011 - 8:45 PM

A Tanzanian was the first convicted in a civilian court after being held at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

NEW YORK - Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday 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 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and successfully prosecuted in a civilian court.

For the Obama administration, anxious to close the prison and move many of the prisoners to civilian courts in the United States, the sentence marks a much-needed victory in its efforts to convince the U.S. public that terrorists like Ghailani, a Tanzanian, can safely be tried, convicted and sentenced in U.S. civilian courts.

The pressure was particularly great in the Ghailani case, because a U.S. District Court jury in Manhattan, the same courthouse where the Justice Department has hoped to try five of the top plotters in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, acquitted Ghailani last fall of more than 280 counts of murder and conspiracy and convicted him of only a single charge of conspiracy to destroy government property.

"Finally, 12 1/2 half years after those devastating and despicable attacks, Ahmed Ghailani will pay for his crime," said Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Attorney General Eric Holder quickly indicated that the Ghailani case is proof that the federal civilian courts are often the right place to hold terrorist trials. "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," he said, "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."

CIA argument rejected

Judge Lewis Kaplan delivered the maximum sentence: life with no parole. He cast aside arguments that Ghailani should have received a lesser sentence, perhaps 20 years, because he was tortured by U.S. agents. "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.

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

Ghailani did not address the court, and he did he look at any of the victims and their families, including 11 victims and witnesses who testified about the bombing and their lives since that day. Ghailani, 36, displayed no emotion at all.

Because the defendant was convicted on only the one count, his lawyers had urged Kaplan to overturn the single conviction. But with government evidence that Ghailani had purchased the TNT and the truck that carried the bomb to the embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the judge refused.

Prosecutors stressed to the judge that Ghailani hurriedly left Kenya, the site of the second bombing, carrying multiple passports and a cell phone shared by other conspirators -- all signs that Ghailani was deeply involved in the planning of the attacks.

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