The first ex-Guantanamo detainee to face a civilian court was cleared Wednesday in Manhattan of all but one of the 280 conspiracy and murder charges against him, dealing a blow to the Obama administration’s plan to try other terror suspects in similar venues.
The federal jury convicted Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, 36, of conspiracy to damage government property in two 1998 al-Qaida attacks that killed 224 people and injured thousands at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Ghailani, a Tanzanian, faces 20 years to life behind bars.
Wednesday’s verdict was a rare defeat for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York, which has a near-flawless record of prosecuting terrorism cases.
It also threatens to derail President Barack Obama’s plan for Gitmo prisoners, sparking debate about whether accused terrorists would find more leniency in civilian courts than at military tribunals.
Ghailani’s trial was a test run for the 174 men awaiting trial in the military prison in Cuba. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, is among them.
Early in his presidency, Obama vowed to shutter Guantanamo amid international criticism of the treatment of prisoners there. He has adopted what he calls a flexible approach, favoring military tribunals in some cases and civilian trials in others.
Most Republicans, however, say all terror suspects should be brought before military tribunals.
The Justice Department on Wednesday defended its position on civilian trials. “We respect the jury’s verdict and are pleased that Ahmed Ghailani now faces a minimum of 20 years in prison and a potential life sentence,” said spokesman Matthew Miller in a statement.
Ghailani’s defense lawyers had portrayed him as a naïve boy who was duped by al-Qaida. He was held in CIA custody after his July 2004 arrest in Pakistan, moved to Guantanamo Bay in late 2006, and transferred to New York in June 2009 to stand civilian trial.