SCOTT SIMON, host:
There was one subject that was conspicuously absent from President Obama's State of the Union address this week. There were no new pledges to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Just hours before the president spoke to Congress, Ahmed Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee ever to be tried in a U.S. civilian court, was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole, for helping al-Qaida to bomb two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. Will his trial affect efforts to close Guantanamo?
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins us.
Dina, thanks for being with us.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Youre welcome.
SIMON: And, as soon as President Obama came into office he signed an executive order promising to close Guantanamo Bay within a year. We're now into the third year of his presidency. Whats happened?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I'm not sure the administration thinks anymore they're even going to be able to close Guantanamo during Obama's first term. You know, everything has worked against them. Third countries have been slow to accept detainees because naturally, theyve been accused of terrorism. The president put military trials for detainees on hold because he wanted to tinker with the rules that governed them. And then Congress passed this law that made it just about impossible for the administration to move detainees into the U.S. for these civilian trials. So in spite of their best intentions, theres still nearly 175 detainees languishing down in Guantanamo.
SIMON: Mm-hmm. We should make plain, that was the last Congress too, the Democratic Congress.
SIMON: There was one related development this week, of course, and that was the sentencing of Ahmed Ghailani, and remind us about this case.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Ghailani was accused of helping al-Qaida bomb two U.S. embassies, the one in Kenya and the one in Tanzania in 1998 and 224 people died and thousands of people were injured in those attacks. And he was brought to New York for trial basically because four other men whod been part of the embassy bombing plot were tried in the same courtroom in 2002, and they were all found guilty and they're all serving life sentences.
And back in November, a New York jury found Ghailani guilty of a single count of conspiracy. And that was a little bit controversial because he had actually been charged with more than 280 counts of murder and conspiracy and he ended up, you know, being found guilty on just one. But that was enough to get him a sentence of life in prison without parole. So the end result, however messy the process might have been, was what prosecutors were looking for.
SIMON: But one of the, if I may, extenuating circumstances in the case - and some of the others in Guantanamo we're told - was that Ghailani was allegedly tortured. Now how did that change the trial?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it changed the trial of little bit, but mostly in terms of admissible evidence. A confession he allegedly provided to authorities was barred because there was some question as to whether or not it was obtained through torture. And there was a witness who claimed to have sold Ghailani the TNT needed for the embassy attacks, and he didn't testify for the same reason. You know, torture has really been this sort of cloud thats hung over this trial and the potential trials of any of the Guantanamo detainees and no one was quite sure how a civilian court would deal with the issue.
I mean. the thinking was that, you know, torture could be seen as grounds to dismiss a case or acquit in civilian courts. The problem is, is that if the government is worried about using all these different possible legal avenues to empty Guantanamo Bay prison and they're worried about civilian courts, then that's one less way that they can get the detainees out.
SIMON: So how did the judge in this week case deal with that issue?
TEMPLE-RASTON: With the issue of torture, he was pretty matter-of-fact. He said even if Ghailani had been tortured, it didn't take away from the severity of his crime and so it really didn't affect the judge's view of the sentence he deserved. So he just pretty summarily sentenced him to life without parole.
SIMON: Does the Ghailani sentence, because it was so tough on this one count, make the likelihood of more civilian trials greater?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, its still a hard slog because of this law that Congress passed, which basically, at least until September, bars detainees from coming to the U.S. for trials. And the Obama administration is trying figure out other ways to deal with detainees, you know, military trials. These things called military commissions are poised to begin again. And it looks like there's going to be a review process for other detainees. And that kind of cuts both ways. On one hand theres going to be a process by which detainees can ask why they're being held. But on the other hand, it is essentially codifies this idea of indefinite detention of holding someone without trial. I mean it says, we're not sure when youre going to trial. It says we're not even sure if youre going to trial. But here's a process by which you can contest the reasons the U.S. is holding you.
Its unclear how exactly it will work, but that's another thing that they're sort of moving forward on.
Attorney General Eric Holder keeps saying that civilian trials are still in the mix, but it's just really unclear when or how.
SIMON: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Thanks so much.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Youre welcome.