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Guantanamo detainee gets life for embassy bombings

A judge on Tuesday handed down a life sentence against the first Guantanamo detainee to have a civilian trial.
Image: (FILES)This October 12, 2010 file courtr
Ahmed Ghailani listens as his attorney Steve Zissou delivers opening arguments at his trial on Oct. 12. The attorney is seen showing a photo of Ghailani as a young man.SHIRLEY SHEPARD / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

A judge sentenced the first Guantanamo detainee to have a U.S. civilian trial to life in prison Tuesday, saying anything he suffered at the hands of the CIA and others "pales in comparison to the suffering and the horror" caused by the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan sentenced Ahmed Ghailani to life, calling the attacks "horrific" and saying the deaths and damage they caused far outweighs "any and all considerations that have been advanced on behalf of the defendant."

He also ordered Ghailani to pay a $33 million fine.

Kaplan announced the sentenced in a packed Manhattan courtroom after calling it a day of justice for the defendant, as well as for the families of 224 people who died in the al-Qaida bombings, including a dozen Americans, and thousands more who were injured.

Kaplan denounced the attacks and said he was satisfied that Ghailani knew and intended that people would be killed as a result of his actions and the conspiracy he joined.

"This crime was so horrible," he said. "It was a cold-blooded killing and maiming of innocent people on an enormous scale. It wrecked the lives of thousands more ... who had their lives changed forever. The purpose of the crime was to create terror by causing death and destruction on a scale that was hard to imagine in 1998 when it occurred."

Ghailani, 36, was convicted late last year of conspiring to destroy government buildings but acquitted of more than 200 counts of murder and dozens of other charges. The charge carries a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison and a maximum of life. He had asked for leniency, saying he never intended to kill anyone and he was tortured.

Ghailani, a Tanzanian, was captured in Pakistan in 2004 and later interrogated overseas at a secret CIA-run camp. He was moved to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2006 before being transferred to New York for prosecution in 2009.

The trial late last year at a lower Manhattan courthouse had been viewed as a test for President Barack Obama's aim of putting other terrorism detainees — including self-professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed — on trial on U.S. soil.

Kaplan rejected requests Ghailani's pleas for leniency, saying whatever Ghailani suffered at the hands of the CIA and others "pales in comparison to the suffering and the horror he and his confederates caused."

Evidence at trial showed that Ghailani helped purchase bomb components prior to the attacks, including 15 gas tanks designed to enhance the power of the bombs, along with one of the bomb vehicles. Written descriptions of FBI interviews quoted Ghailani as saying he realized a week before the bombings that they were intended to strike a U.S. embassy.

The jury did not see those descriptions, but they were submitted for Kaplan to consider for sentencing.

The FBI also said Ghailani was trained by al-Qaida after the twin 1998 attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and became a bodyguard and cook for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan before becoming an expert document forger for the terrorist organization.

Ghailani's lawyers argued that he was duped by friends into participating in the attack and was upset when he saw the damage done.

A group of tearful survivors of the attacks and family members of those who died spoke at the sentencing, including Sue Bartley, a Washington-area resident who lost her husband, Julian Leotis Bartley Sr., then U.S. consul general to Kenya, and her son, Julian "Jay" Bartley Jr.

Bartley said the attacks were still fresh in her mind and "excruciatingly painful. What remains is a lingering, unsettling feeling that is compounded by grief, deep sadness and anger. The pain is with me every day. Often times it is unthinkable."

Justina Mdobilu said she was the only Tanzanian victim to attend the sentencing and believed others stayed away because it was too painful.

"Nobody wants to come. People are upset. People are going through post-traumatic syndrome," she said.

James Ndeda, of Nairobi, asked Kaplan to order Ghailani to prison for a year for each of the victims.

"Ghailani and his accomplices shattered our lives," said Ndeda, who suffered a skull fracture, as well as eye and back problems that continue 12 years later.

Ghailani is the fifth person to be sentenced. Four others were sentenced to life in prison after a 2001 trial in Manhattan federal court. Bin Laden is charged in the indictment, as well.

Before sentencing, defense attorney Peter Quijano portrayed his client as a hero, saying he had provided U.S. authorities with "intelligence and information that arguably saved lives and I submit that is not hyperbole."

He also said Ghailani cried when he learned about the attacks. Ghailani declined to speak on his own behalf.

The closely watched test case points to the difficulties of applying civilian laws and rules of evidence in civil prosecutions of suspects picked up in other countries in the war on terror.

It also may dash hopes that the Ghailani case would clear the way for the trials of other Guantanamo detainees captured around the globe in the war on al-Qaida, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

The confessions and the testimony of the government's main witness, a man who would say he sold explosives that were used in the bombs to Ghailani, were kept out of the trial because they were gathered by investigators whose priority was to stop further terrorism attacks rather than gather evidence for a criminal trial.

While a military tribunal might not allow evidence that was excluded from Ghailani's civilian trial either, its exclusion at a high-profile trial could make it harder for the government to argue that most detainees belong in a civilian court at a time when the issue has become politically charged.

President Barack Obama continues to say he wants to prosecute terrorists in both military commissions and criminal courts, but Congress has made that difficult. Lawmakers have prohibited the Pentagon from transferring detainees to the U.S., even to stand trial.

On the eve of trial, Kaplan excluded the testimony of the explosives salesman because he was discovered when Ghailani underwent harsh interrogation at an overseas CIA-run camp after his 2004 arrest in Pakistan. Prosecutors decided not to use the confessions because Ghailani wasn't advised of his rights before he spoke to agents and did not have access to a lawyer.

The rulings opened the door for a mixed verdict. During deliberations, the jury had indicated it was divided, and Kaplan theorized the guilty verdict on only one count reflected a compromise with a juror who was holding out against conviction.

"Thus, if there was any injustice in the jury's verdict, the victims were the United States and those killed, injured and otherwise devastated by these barbaric acts of terror, not Ghailani," the judge wrote as he rejected a request by defense lawyers to toss out the lone charge that resulted in Ghailani's conviction.

The judge called the evidence persuasive, citing proof that Ghailani bought one of the bomb-laden trucks, purchased 15 gas cylinders used in the bomb, stored and concealed detonators and sheltered an al-Qaida fugitive prior to the attacks.

In court papers, prosecutors agreed. They also cited evidence against Ghailani, including that he delivered hundreds of pounds of TNT to an al-Qaida cell two months before the bombings along with bags of fertilizer.

Some of the best evidence the jury never saw may have been FBI recounts of interviews of Ghailani, including discussions in January and February 2007, months after he was brought to the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from the CIA camp overseas.

In those, Ghailani's history is described back to his 1974 birth in Zanzibar, Tanzania, including that his best childhood friend went for military training in 1996 to Afghanistan and introduced him to friends who were involved in the militant Islamic movement.

The FBI said Ghailani told agents that Ghailani wanted to get military training because his childhood friend and others he had met "seemed like heroes, and he wanted to be like them."

The FBI said Ghailani also said he wanted to learn weapons, do jihad and "wanted to learn to fight so that he could kill Jews."

It was only after the embassy bombings, that Ghailani got to go through training in Afghanistan, according to the FBI interviews.

He later served as a bodyguard and cook for Osama bin Laden, though he did not have any private conversations with him and eventually got tired of the duties and asked to learn how to forge documents, the FBI said.

The FBI quoted him as saying he was being trained on making fraudulent documents when his trainer was making some of the fraudulent documents used by 19 men who hijacked planes on Sept. 11, 2001.

It also said he was in Karachi, Pakistan, at the time of the attacks and asked Khalid Sheik Mohammed who did it, only to be told he didn't know.

The FBI said Ghailani didn't believe Mohammed didn't know and "assumed it was a secret."

The questioning of the interviews was wide ranging at times, including when agents asked Ghailani if he knew any men who wore women's clothing when they traveled. He said he had worn a burqa at times when he traveled, the FBI said.