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Alleged Al Qaeda Terrorist Trial Begins Today in NYC Courtroom

When Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was first transferred to New York from Guantanamo Bay last year, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio called it "the first step in the Democrats’ plan to import terrorists into America."

More than a year later, Ghailani remains the only detainee from Guantanamo Bay to be brought to the United States. He’s scheduled to go on trial starting this week in lower Manhattan. Jury selection begins Monday.

Ghailani is a Tanzanian accused of helping to bomb two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 that killed 224 people. Like the September 11, 2001 attacks, those bombings have been attributed to Osama bin Laden.

In hundreds of legal charges filed with the federal court in New York, Ghailani is accused of having scouted out the American embassy in Tanzania before it was bombed, assembled bomb materials and escorted the suicide bomber to the site. After the bombings, prosecutors say he fled to Afghanistan and rose up the ranks of al Qaeda, forging documents for the group and working as a cook and a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.

When he was captured in Pakistan in 2004, U.S. authorities deemed Ghailani a "high-value" detainee and sent him to a secret CIA prison for interrogation, where Ghailani claims he was tortured. Indeed, a variety of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques," including waterboarding, were authorized for use by CIA interrogators on high-value detainees.

Ghailani was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2006. Last year, more than ten years after the embassy bombings, he was transferred to the New York prison. The same prison has safely held such notorious criminals as John Gotti and the blind terror leader Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman.

Critics of Ghailani’s transfer warned that his prosecution could be derailed by his abuse in prison and the long delay in bringing him to trial. But the federal judge hearing the case, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, has denied the defense lawyers’ requests to dismiss the trial on those grounds.

Last week, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani insisted that it would be safer to try Ghailani in a military commission in Guantanamo Bay than in New York City.

Ghailani has already appeared in court for pretrial hearings, however, without incident. New York City police have said that while they will provide some extra security for the trial, the proceedings will not require any of the elaborate and costly measures that New York City officials had warned would be necessary for a trial of the 9/11 plotters. After receiving complaints from local business groups about the potential disruption that trial might cause, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly announced that he would take a range of extraordinary security measures, including a flood of uniformed police officers, checkpoints and thousands of interlocking metal barriers. Mayor Bloomberg estimated the cost at $200 million a year, and the Obama administration soon backed away from the plan.

Despite the huge costs and inconvenience predicted for the 9-11 plotters’ trial, no such estimates have been made for the trials of any of those accused of carrying out al Qaeda’s U.S. embassy bombing attacks.

Four other men have already been tried and convicted in the same New York courthouse for their roles in the U.S. embassy attacks. All were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

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daphneeviatarhumanrights1st

daphneeviatarhumanrights1st

As Senior Associate in Human Rights First’s Law and Security Program, Daphne Eviatar investigates and reports on U.S. national security policies and practices and their human rights implications.

Daphne is a lawyer and award-winning journalist who has written widely about law, human rights and economic development. A former legal correspondent for The Washington Independent, her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek International, Harper’s and many others. She’s been interviewed on radio and television, including on The Rachel Maddow Show and Morning Meeting with Dylan Ratigan (MSNBC), Al Jazeera, and WNYC and KCRW Public Radio.

Daphne was a 2005 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow, a 2003 Pew International Journalism fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, and has taught law and journalism at New York Law School.

Daphne is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, New York University School of Law and Dartmouth College. She was a law clerk to Judge Irma E. Gonzalez on the United States District Court in San Diego, and to Judge Dolores K. Sloviter on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia.