The first Guantanamo detainee to face a civilian trial has been acquitted of most charges that he helped unleash death and destruction on two US embassies in Africa in 1998 – an opening salvo in al Qaida’s campaign to kill Americans.
A federal jury convicted Ahmed Ghailani of one count of conspiracy but acquitted him of all other counts, including murder and murder conspiracy, in the embassy bombings.
The anonymous federal jury in New York deliberated for seven days, with a juror writing a note to the judge saying she felt threatened by other jurors.
Prosecutors had branded Ghailani a cold-blooded terrorist. The defence portrayed him as a clueless errand boy, exploited by senior al Qaida operatives and framed by evidence from contaminated crime scenes.
The trial in a lower Manhattan courthouse had been viewed as a possible test case for the Obama administration’s aim of putting other terror detainees – including self-professed September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – on trial on US soil.
Ghailani’s prosecution also demonstrated some of the constitutional challenges the government would face if that happens. On the eve of his trial last month, the judge barred the government from calling a key witness because the witness had been identified while Ghailani was being held at a secret CIA camp where harsh interrogation techniques were used.
After briefly considering an appeal of that ruling, prosecutors forged ahead with a case honed a decade ago in the prosecution of four other men charged in the same attacks in Tanzania and Kenya. All were convicted in the same court and sentenced to life terms.
Prosecutors had alleged that Ghailani helped an al Qaida cell to buy a truck and components for explosives used in a suicide bombing in his native Tanzania on August 7, 1998. The attack in Dar es Salaam and a nearly simultaneous bombing in Nairobi, Kenya, killed 224 people, including 12 Americans. The day before the bombings, Ghailani boarded a one-way flight to Pakistan under an alias, prosecutors said. While on the run, he spent time in Afghanistan as a cook and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and later as a document forger for al Qaida, authorities said.
Despite losing its key witness, the government was given broad latitude to reference al Qaida and bin Laden. It did – again and again. “This is Ahmed Ghailani. This is al Qaida. This is a terrorist. This is a killer,” Assistant US Attorney Harry Chernoff said in closing arguments.
The defence never contested that Ghailani knew some of the plotters. But it claimed he was in the dark about their sinister intentions. “Call him a fall guy. Call him a pawn,” lawyer Peter Quijano said in his closing argument. “But don’t call him guilty.”