Guantanamo Detainee Trial May Be Litmus Test The Southern District of New York has been handling terrorism trials for about as long as al-Qaida has been a threat to the U.S. The trial there for Ahmed Ghailani may become the model for how some Guantanamo detainees might be tried and imprisoned in this country.
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Guantanamo Detainee Trial May Be Litmus Test

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Guantanamo Detainee Trial May Be Litmus Test

Guantanamo Detainee Trial May Be Litmus Test

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This is NPR News. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Federal prosecutors have a blueprint of sorts for the first Guantanamo detainee to stand trail in the United States. Ahmed Ghailani has pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges. He will be tried in the Southern District of New York.

It is no accident that Ghailani is being tried in the federal district that includes Manhattan. That court has been handling terrorism cases for about as long as al-Qaida has been threatening the U.S. and Ghailani's case is a rerun of a trail that prosecutors there won back in 2001. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has this report.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: I'm standing outside the Manhattan Correctional Center, just across the street from the Federal Courthouse. Ghailani arrived here from Guantanamo and he stands accused of playing a key role in the 1998 embassy attacks in East Africa. Right now, he's being held in the terror wing, a unit called 10 South, where as it so happens, disgraced financier Bernard Madoff is also being held.

This is the same building where almost ten years ago four other men accused in the very same embassy bombing case were held while they stood trial. Ghailani was indicted along with them.

Mr. DAVID KELLEY (Former U.S. Attorney): The embassy bombing case had Ghailani as a named defendant. He was only a fugitive and found and ultimately detained in Guantanamo.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's former U.S. attorney and terrorism prosecutor David Kelley. He was part of the prosecution team that successfully convicted four men for the embassy bombing attacks in 2001. They are now serving life sentences in a supermax facility in Florence, Colorado.

The East Africa embassy bombings happened in 1998, three years before the 9/11 attacks. And there were two bombings: one in Tanzania and another in Kenya.

During the first embassy bombing trial, prosecutors played graphic news footage to put the carnage in stark relief for jurors.

(Soundbite of sirens)

More than 200 people died and thousands were injured. Prosecutors say Ghailani helped buy the truck and the chemicals used in the Tanzania bombing.

Mr. KELLEY: The evidence against Ghailani will be evidence that for the most part has been presented to a jury before. A jury was convinced of it, having convicted the defendants in the last case, and an appeals court approved the procedures and the evidence that was used, because those convictions were affirmed on appeal.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which may explain why the Obama administration decided to send Ghailani to New York. The fact that four men who allegedly worked with Ghailani have already been convicted here adds some predictability to an uncertain process. What's more, the southern district has a good track record in these cases.

Sam Rascoff is a professor at New York University Law School and he says history has made the southern district a go-to court for terrorism cases, beginning with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Professor SAM RASCOFF (New York University Law School): Along the way they've been centrally involved in the East Africa bombings, prosecuting members of the so-called Bojinka plot that would have downed a number of airliners over the Pacific Ocean, as well as, let's not forget, indicting Osama bin Laden himself.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The biggest wrinkle in the Ghailani case involves whether he was tortured. He claims he was. In theory, a judge could dismiss the case on those grounds alone. Former U.S. Attorney David Kelley says the issue will likely come up, but it would be unusual for a judge to dismiss the charges.

Mr. KELLEY: That's a remedy that is not one that has been given out often, but it is certainly an issue that is likely to receive some scrutiny from the court.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Aside from that, experts agree that the most controversial thing about Ghailani is his return address — Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He is the Obama administration's test case — the model for how some Guantanamo detainees might be tried and imprisoned in this country. Here's David Kelley.

Mr. KELLEY: I don't know of anything that would suggest that Ghailani is different than or more dangerous than any of the other defendants that we've had here in the past.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which, of course, is the point. The Obama administration is counting on the Southern District prosecutors to show that the U.S. court system is a perfectly adequate way to handle many of the Guantanamo detainees.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.

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