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Guantanamo Detainee's Trial May Set Tone For Others

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Guantanamo Detainee's Trial May Set Tone For Others

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Guantanamo Detainee's Trial May Set Tone For Others

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And now we're going to hear about a new development in an ongoing controversy in this country. That controversy is over civilian trials for Guantanamo detainees.

You may recall that last year, the Obama administration's plan to hold a trial in New York for several of the alleged 9/11 plotters created a huge backlash. And while cases remain on hold, jury selection begins this week in the New York trial of a different Guantanamo detainee.

NPR's Carrie Johnson reports the Obama administration hopes that this trial will set the tone for other prosecutions.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani is accused of taking part in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks against the U.S. Prosecutors say he helped carry out embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998 that killed more than 200 people. But legal experts say they're watching his case for another reason.

Mr. KEN WAINSTEIN (Attorney, O'Melveny and Myers): He's the first of the detainees out of Guantanamo to be transferred into the federal court system.

JOHNSON: That's Ken Wainstein. He oversaw national security prosecutions during the Bush years.

Mr. WAINSTEIN: He's sort of a trailblazer to the extent there are going to be further detainees transferred out of Gitmo and into the federal system.

JOHNSON: One hundred seventy-four men remain at Guantanamo, and a few dozen of them had been on a path to trial before controversy over where to try them erupted this year. President Obama recently told reporters there's no reason to change course.

President BARACK OBAMA: I am absolutely convinced that the American justice system is strong enough that we should be able to convict people who murdered innocent Americans who carried out terrorist attacks against us.

JOHNSON: The Ghailani trial will be the most visible demonstration of that White House strategy.

Ghailani left Gitmo in June 2009, and he's been living in a secure wing of the Metropolitan Correctional Center, which has housed other accused terrorists and drug lords. And city officials say they're not going to roll out expensive new security for his trial. Texas law professor Bobby Chesney says the legal issues in the case are even more important than the politics.

Mr. BOBBY CHESNEY: Well, the Ghailani case is obviously a very important case as a test run of how criminal prosecution might work in cases in which the defendant has been held in military or other - or CIA custody for some sustained period.

JOHNSON: Judge Lewis Kaplan, who's presiding over the Ghailani trial, already ruled on two of the major issues that could influence other Gitmo prosecutions. The first revolves around a detainee's right to a speedy trial. This summer, the judge said the years that lapsed between Ghailani's indictment and his arrival in New York didn't violate his Sixth Amendment rights. Ghailani had spent two years in secret CIA prisons before authorities moved him to Gitmo. Here's Wainstein.

Mr. WAINSTEIN: Had the judge determined that a detainee's speedy trial clock started the moment that he was brought into detention, then all those detainees who were picked up around the world would have an argument that they could never face trial in federal court.

JOHNSON: There's a second finding deep inside the judge's opinion that could have implications for other Gitmo defendants. The judge said prosecutors don't have to hold a defendant in the city or judicial district where he'll ultimately face trial. It's enough, Judge Kaplan said, for the defendant to be in court for a first appearance, a plea and the trial. That means detainees could be held almost anywhere until the proceedings begin. Human rights advocates are focusing on an even more contentious argument.

Ms. KAREN GREENBERG (Director, Center on Law and Security, New York University): The issue of coercive interrogation and torture has plagued this case from the very beginning.

JOHNSON: Karen Greenberg directs the Center on Law and Security at New York University. And she's been watching whether an important witness the government learned about only after Ghailani's harsh CIA interrogation will be allowed to testify against him at the trial.

Ms. GREENBERG: This regime of enhanced interrogation continues to poison the system, and is now poisoning the federal court system.

JOHNSON: Judge Kaplan has signaled that he could rule on that critical issue as early as this week. Opening statements are set to begin October 4th, and prosecutors estimate the trial could last three or four months.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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