Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Gets Life Sentence

Ahmed Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a U.S. federal court, has been sentenced to life in prison. He was convicted last fall on a single count of conspiracy stemming from the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in East Africa. Host Melissa Block speaks to NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, who was at the sentencing hearing.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The first former Guantanamo detainee to be tried in civilian court was sentenced today in life in prison. Ahmed Ghailani received the maximum sentence for his role in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. Two hundred twenty-four people died in those attacks. Ghailani was convicted last year on one count of conspiracy. His trial has become a test case for whether to not Guantanamo detainees should be tried in civilian court.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston was in the Manhattan courtroom for sentencing today. And, Dina, what was the scene today?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, the room was packed and on one side the benches were filled with what they called Victim Observers - these were basically people who had lost someone in the attacks, or had survived the bombings themselves. And then there was, you know, Ghailani there, and I was actually quite surprised when I saw him because in the mug shot picture you see in the paper, he looks very baby-faced. And now, you know, years after his capture, now he's 36 years old and he looks much older than I expected.

And during most of the courtroom session, which went on for about three hours, he sat with his hands gripping the edge of the defense table. And the victims came up from the benches in the back, one by one, and addressed Ghailani directly, talking about who had they had lost what they'd experienced back in August 1998 when those bombings happened. And Ghailani never really turned back to look at them.

BLOCK: And what did the judge say when he read out this sentence?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Ghailani stood up with his lawyers and the judge said that he was going to be sentenced to life in prison. And the judge said, actually without parole - life means life. And Ghailani just bowed his head and managed to smile to his defense team. And that was about it.

I mean the sentence wasn't a big surprise, because the judge had put out some paper last week that basically talked about the narrative that he saw and how Ghailani was involved with the embassy bombings. And he called Ghailani's role in the attacks: Terrorism, pure and simple. And he said that he had to provide a sentence that made crystal clear that terrorism has serious consequences, and that's why it was such a harsh sentence.

BLOCK: Now, Dina, last year, the jury in this case had acquitted Ahmed Ghailani of more than 200 other charges. He was convicted on just this one conspiracy count. And some at the time saw that as a prime example of why these cases should be kept out of civilian court. Does this maximum life sentence change that debate?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, right now, even with this tough sentence, that's a hard sell. The idea was that the jury had only convicted him on one count, and therefore juries are unpredictable and they don't want that for Guantanamo detainees - critics say no. Republicans are against bringing any detainees to the U.S. for trial, and Congress has actually passed legislation that basically won't pay for criminal - civilian trials for Guantanamo detainees. And that's really tied the administration's hands.

BLOCK: So what happens now then to the detainees who are still at Guantanamo?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, from what we're hearing, the Obama administration is preparing to announce Plan B. I mean, we're expecting an executive order that will establish a review process for Guantanamo detainees. Essentially, once or twice a year, they'll be able to go through some board or go before it, make a case why they shouldn't be held anymore.

And what that essentially does is set up rules that codify this idea of an indefinite detention - that the U.S. has these detainees who have no idea whether or not they're actually going to have a trial. And that has civil liberties groups up in arms.

And then, on top of that, we also expect that there's going to be some sort of announcement about military-like trials, military commissions is what they call them, that they'll actually give the go ahead to get those going again. And those had sort of been stopped while the Obama administration was looking at how it could close Guantanamo.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston in New York. Dina, thank you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're very welcome.

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