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The first former Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court was sentenced yesterday to life in prison. Ahmed Ghailani has been convicted of conspiring with members of al-Qaida to bomb two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. Two hundred twenty-four people were killed in those attacks, and thousands were wounded.
Ghailani's trial became a test case of trying Guantanamo detainees in a civilian court, and NPR's Dina Temple-Raston was at the sentencing.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The courtroom was packed. On one side, there were what they called victim observers: three long benches of people who had either lost someone in the 1998 attacks or survived the bombings themselves. One after another, they stood to address Ahmed Ghailani directly. They told him about sons and daughters and spouses they had lost. They talked about the bombing in gruesome detail. And one after another, they asked Federal Judge Lewis Kaplan to impose a penalty so Ghailani would feel, in the words of one victim, the same losses they felt.
Ms. LAURA PITTER (Human Rights Watch): Well, the victims have a dramatic impact on the court.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Laura Pitter, a counterterrorism advisor at Human Rights Watch.
Ms. PITTER: They were able to attend the trial, and they voiced their very articulate views about why he should be sentenced very severely.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The families called for a life sentence without parole - the maximum the judge could impose. Ghailani's defense team, for its part, tried to convince the judge that there were extenuating circumstances. Specifically, they claimed that Ghailani was tortured while in CIA and U.S. government custody, and had been held so long at Guantanamo, he deserved some leniency in sentencing. The judge found that argument unconvincing.
Ghailani's crime was so horrendous, he said, even if he was tortured or mistreated, it didn't diminish the severity of his crime. The reason that's important: because for the first time, a U.S. judge has addressed how a court might deal with the issue of prisoners who claim to be victims of U.S. torture. Again, Laura Pitter.
Ms. PITTER: Even though torture was an issue in the trial, it was still dealt with in a way that Ghailani still was convicted of a very serious charge, and he was sentenced to a very serious sentence: life without the possibility of parole.
TEMPLE-RASTON: After the sentencing, I walked outside with Karen Greenberg. She's the executive director of New York University's Law and Security Center.
Ms. KAREN GREENBERG (Executive Director, New York University's Law and Security Center): I wasn't surprised by the sentence.
TEMPLE-RASTON: What does this mean for civilian trials for Guantanamo detainees?
Ms. GREENBERG: Taking it at a distance, in a colder light, this trial worked. It was efficient. It was on point. It was not overly dramatic. There was no grandstanding, and the jury found themselves able to come to a verdict.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Greenberg says while Ghailani's trial may not have been the slam dunk prosecutors had anticipated, the case did show that for Guantanamo detainees, civilian courts can work.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.
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