First Guantanamo Detainee Arrives In U.S.

Ahmed Gailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to stand trial in federal court, arrived in New York Tuesday to stand trial for the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. His case is part of a much broader national debate over how to handle the roughly 240 detainees being held at the camp.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today, for the first time, a detainee from Guantanamo Bay arrived in the U.S. to stand trial. Ahmed Ghailani was arraigned in a federal courtroom in New York. He pleaded not guilty to participating in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. NPR's Ari Shapiro joins me here in the studio to talk about this case and what it could mean for the other detainees at Guantanamo. Ari, tell us first more about this case and how it compares to the other detainees.

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, I think it's not coincidental that the first of these cases we've seen is probably one of the easiest of all the Guantanamo detainees to try and that's because the charges against him are all connected to things that happened before 2001. As you said, these are the bombings at the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. In fact, the indictment against him, with 280 some charges, came out in March of 2001, six months before 9/11. That said, his story is not unlike many detainees at Guantanamo. He was picked up in Pakistan in 2004.

He spent two years at a CIA prison, and then was brought to Guantanamo in 2006. But none of those questions are likely to play a significant role in his trial because, as I say, everything about the trial comes from pre-9/11.

NORRIS: Now, are the trials for the Guantanamo detainees necessarily more difficult than other terrorism trials?

SHAPIRO: Well, there's two different kinds of difficulty. There's legal difficulty and political difficulty. Legally speaking, a suspected terrorist at Guantanamo is not, broadly speaking, any different from a suspected terrorist picked up in the United States and tried in the U.S. There have been lots and lots of terrorism trials in the U.S. throughout American history - and even since 9/11, even some very high-profile terrorists like Zacarias Moussaoui. There may be problems with specific Guantanamo detainees standing trial, questions of torture and things like that.

Those questions can be addressed on a case-by-case basis. But broadly speaking, legally, no, Guantanamo detainees are no different from other terrorism detainees. Now politically, it's very different and I think politically, this is shaping up to be a much, much harder fight than the Obama administration had anticipated.

NORRIS: And if it is going to be this much larger fight, what are the outlines of that fight?

SHAPIRO: Well, Republicans have been citing a poll by USA Today and Gallup. That said, the vast majority of Americans do not want Guantanamo detainees brought to the United States. Period. The Obama administration emphasizes that nobody dangerous will be released into the United States. Today, they put out a fact sheet listing many of the high-profile terrorism detainees who are now in U.S. custody, in federal prisons in the United States. They said there are 216 inmates in prisons around the U.S. who have some connection to terrorism. Of course, some of those 216 are not terribly dangerous people.

But the Obama administration is trying to drive home the point that terrorists standing trial in the U.S. is nothing new. This is something that the Marshal Service and Bureau of Prisons has been doing for years now.

NORRIS: The Obama administration was also trying to drive home the point that he was very serious about his intention to close Guantanamo. It was one of the first orders of business when he took office. How much progress have they made on that front?

SHAPIRO: Well, there's a task force that's working on all these issues that President Obama gave 180 days to complete their work. And so that deadline comes in late July. But that deadline is not soon enough for some congressional Democrats, who say listen, we're getting a lot of pressure from Republicans. We feel like we want to support the president on his desire to close Guantanamo, but Senate aides are telling me they've got to give us the details so we can actually defend these plans.

Because right now, some Senate Democrats feel like they're just being beaten up. There are some 240 detainees at Guantanamo and pretty soon, we're going to have to start seeing where they're all going to go.

NORRIS: We've got to let you go, but is it realistic to expect that the White House can keep to that timetable?

SHAPIRO: I wouldn't rule it out yet, but some people are wondering how they're going to do it.

NORRIS: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro, talking with us about the first Guantanamo prisoner brought to the U.S. to stand trial.

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Gitmo Detainee Pleads Not Guilty In Bombings

The first Guantanamo detainee scheduled for trial in a civilian court in the U.S. pleaded not guilty Tuesday to involvement in the 1998 bombings at U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

Ahmed Ghailani entered the plea in a federal court in Manhattan hours after being brought to New York from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Tanzania native is accused of 286 separate counts related to the Aug. 7, 1998, bombing of embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. The attacks killed 224 people.

Prosecutors claim that Ghailani helped to buy a Nissan truck, oxygen and acetylene tanks that were used in the bombing in Tanzania. Prosecutors contend he also helped load bomb-making material in the truck before the attack.

But Ghailani has said he was an al-Qaida pawn. While being held at Guantanamo Bay, Ghailani told a military panel that he unwittingly delivered explosives used by others for the bombing in Tanzania and apologized to the U.S. government.

Ghailani is accused of six counts of conspiracy to murder, bomb and maim. The other charges are specifically related to the bombings — murder and attempted murder; using and carrying an explosive device; and using and attempting to use weapons of mass destruction. Ten of the charges carry possible death sentences.

Ghailani was first indicted in December 1998 on charges that he conspired with Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida members to kill Americans overseas and aided in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania. That bombing killed at least 11 people and injured 85.

In addition to the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Ghailani is accused of plotting with al-Qaida in a conspiracy to kill U.S. civilians all over the world.

Ghailani left Africa for Pakistan the night before the bombing. He was captured in July 2004 and sent to Guantanamo Bay in September 2006.

Ghailani's transfer to the U.S. comes weeks after Senate Democrats rejected President Obama's request for funds to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Lawmakers from both parties have demanded that the administration lay out a comprehensive plan for transferring detainees to the U.S. for trial, imprisonment or resettlement amid concern that the detainees represent a security threat.

But the Justice Department said numerous terrorism suspects have been held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan — where Ghailani is behind bars — without incident.

The Justice Department said Ghailani was referred from prosecution in a civilian court after his case was reviewed by the Obama administration's interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force. Ghailani had been held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba since September 2006.

"With his appearance in federal court today, Ahmed Ghailani is being held accountable for his alleged role in the bombing of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and the murder of 224 people," Attorney General Eric Holder said. "The Justice Department has a long history of securely detaining and successfully prosecuting terror suspects through the criminal justice system, and we will bring that experience to bear in seeking justice in this case."

From NPR and wire reports

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