Gitmo Detainee Acquitted Of All But 1 Charge

A Guantanamo detainee charged with involvement in the two deadly bombings of U.S. embassies in 1998 faces 20 years to life in prison. Ahmed Ghailani was convicted of conspiracy to destroy U.S. property by a federal jury in New York. But he was acquitted of hundreds of other charges.

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From the prosecutor's point of view, the first civilian trial of a former Guantanamo detainee didn't work out so well. The defendant was a Tanzanian man named Ahmed Ghailani. He faced more than 280 counts of murder and conspiracy connected with embassy bombings in Africa in the 1990s. He was acquitted on all but one count. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been covering this story in New York.

Hi, Dina.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Hi there.

INSKEEP: So what's it like to sit in a courtroom and be found not guilty more than 280 times?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, we talked to people in the courtroom. And apparently Ghailani and his lawyers heard there was going to be a verdict and were sitting at the defense table, looking completely ashen. And then Ghailani had tears in his eyes and apparently they believed the verdict was going to go against them. And then the foreman stood up and started reciting all these non - not-guilty verdicts. And the air apparently just completely went out of the room.

And in the end, the jury found Ghailani, as you were saying, guilty of one count of conspiracy to destroy government buildings and property. And it's unclear how, exactly, they found him guilty of that and not guilty of the attack itself. So, on a lot of...

INSKEEP: Oh, because they were very similar charges. They were basically repeated many times, in different ways.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. So it was a really surprising verdict.

INSKEEP: And so he still faces time a couple of decades, possibly of prison time. And yet, this must have been hair-raising for prosecutors. I can recall, when this case began, Eric Holder, the Attorney General, was asked: what if you lose, what happens then? And he basically said, well, we just have to win. It's an absolute must win.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Right. They thought that this was going to be a lay-up because there were four al-Qaida members who were convicted in the same conspiracy, in the same embassy bombings in the same courtroom back in 2001. But, you know, nine years later, witnesses have died, there were forgotten details. And the details surrounding Ghailani made this complicated, too. He'd been captured in Pakistan in 2004. He had been held in a CIA secret prison, and then was transferred to Guantanamo. His lawyers said he was tortured so some of the statements weren't admissible in court.

And there was even one witness that was supposed to testify that Ghailani had bought a lot of TNT just before the attack, but the judge ended up saying that he wasn't allowed to testify. So this was a case that was full of a lot of reasonable doubt, and prosecutors weren't really able to get over that bar.

INSKEEP: Well how does this ruling, how does this verdict, I should say, affect the effort to get the last inmates out of Guantanamo Bay prison?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it makes it a much harder sell. I mean, the failure to convict Ghailani on the most of the serious terrorism charges play right into the hands of people who say that terrorists should be tried in special courts, not criminal ones. Remember, there was this concern, that if Khalid Sheik Mohammed the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, were tried in a federal court, a jury might end up letting him go free. And Attorney General Eric Holder had said that, he wouldn't be freed, he could be held indefinitely, even if the jury didn't convict.

But Republicans, like Congressman Peter King of New York, are saying that this verdict has proven their point: a jury almost didn't convict Ghailani.

INSKEEP: Were people surprised, that the jury that almost didn't convict Ghailani, was a jury in New York City?

TEMPLE-RASTON: They were very surprised. You know, coming from someone who lives here, you know, there is this supposition that New York juries are going to find terrorism suspects guilty, just because of what happened in the city. And...

INSKEEP: Nine/11, yeah.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In 9/11. And this Ghailani verdict wasn't an easy one for the jury to come to. I mean, clearly, the jury weighed the evidence against someone prosecutors said, a member of times, was an al-Qaida member, and they just weren't convinced. And the judge told the jurors their verdict says a lot about our justice system. And I think it does.

INSKEEP: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston in New York City, this morning; bringing us the latest on a jury's decision to acquit Ahmed Ghailani on almost all the charges. He's still convicted on one charge and faces around 20 years in prison sentencing to come later.

This is NPR News.

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