NEW YORK (Reuters) - The first criminal trial of a terrorism suspect from Guantanamo Bay began on Tuesday with prosecutors calling him a militant while the defense said he was a naive associate of extremists who bombed U.S. embassies.
The trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani at Manhattan federal court is seen as a test of U.S. President Barack Obama’s approach to handling some of the 174 suspected extremists held at Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused mastermind of the September 11 attacks.
Ghailani, 36, is a Tanzanian charged with conspiring with Islamic militants to bomb the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya on August 7, 1998, in which 224 people were killed. He faces life in prison if convicted.
In opening statements, defense attorney Steve Zissou said Ghailani, who was 22 at the time of the bombings, was “immature ... trusting, naive, a creature of his surroundings” was “duped, innocently, to provide assistance in these attacks.”
Zissou said that Ghailani, unlike his friends who had become militants, was “still watching cartoons.”
“This case is going to come down to a simple question: did Ahmed Ghailani know?” Zissou said. “Did he know what his friends were planning? Did he know what was going to happen? The answer to that question is no.”
But prosecutors said Ghailani was a member of the al Qaeda cell behind the attacks and lied about his involvement.
“This man, Ahmed Ghailani, was a vital member of that cell, this cell that killed 224 people that morning,” assistant U.S. attorney Nicholas Lewin told the jury.
Prosecutors said Ghailani bought the oxygen and acetylene tanks and the white Nissan Atlas truck used in the attack Tanzania.
“It was the defendant who bought the truck that served as the weapon on August 7, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania,” Lewin said.
The jury also heard on Tuesday from the former acting ambassador to Tanzania, John Lange, who was in the embassy building at the time of the bombing. He said he suddenly heard a “very low rumbling noise for about two seconds,” then the windows burst, sending glass onto everyone in the room.
Prosecutors said Tanzanian shopkeepers, a former roommate of Ghailani and a former Moroccan al Qaeda operative turned cooperator named L’Houssaine Kherchtou would be among the many witnesses they planned to call during the trial.
Last week the trial was delayed when U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is overseeing the case, ruled against the participation of a key government witness.
Prosecutors had wanted the court to hear testimony from Tanzanian witness Hussein Abebe, who they say told FBI agents he had sold explosives to Ghailani that were used later in one of the bombings.
The defense argued that Ghailani, who was in CIA custody after his July 2004 arrest in Pakistan before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay in late 2006, was coerced into naming Abebe, and that he should not be allowed to testify.
Prosecutors have acknowledged that any statements made by Ghailani while in CIA custody were likely “coerced” and that they would not use them, but the judge said Abebe would not have been found without those statements.
Obama’s administration has adopted what it calls a flexible approach to terrorism suspects, favoring military tribunals in some cases and civilian trials in others. Most Republicans say all terrorism suspects should be tried in military tribunals.
Editing by Michelle Nichols and Bill Trott