NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge sentenced the first former Guantanamo detainee to face a civilian trial to life in prison on Tuesday, denying defense calls for leniency over his treatment by CIA interrogators.
Tanzanian national Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, 36, was accused of joining the 1998 al Qaeda bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. A U.S. jury in November found him guilty of one count of conspiracy to damage or destroy U.S. property with explosives but cleared him of 284 other conspiracy and murder charges.
His case in New York City was the first test of President Barack Obama’s decision to prosecute in civilian court some of the 173 terrorism suspects held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Republican critics say the suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, should be tried in a military tribunal and not brought into the United States.
Judge Lewis Kaplan declined to grant Ghailani any leniency on defense arguments that he was repeatedly tortured while in U.S. custody and shared valuable information with his Central Intelligence Agency interrogators.
“Whatever Mr. Ghailani suffered at the hands of the CIA and others in our government... the impact pales in comparison to the suffering and the horror he and his confederates caused,” Kaplan said.
Crucial evidence tainted by such interrogations was withheld from trial and Kaplan said he disregarded all such evidence when determining the sentence.
Evidence obtained by torture is seen as suspect in the U.S. judicial system because it is coerced, not freely offered.
Kaplan also dismissed defense claims throughout the trial that Ghailani was a dupe running errands for men he later discovered were al Qaeda operatives.
“I am not persuaded that Mr. Ghailani is the harmless and innocent person that has been put forward — not at all,” Kaplan said.
Obama vowed during his 2008 presidential campaign to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which has drawn international condemnation for its treatment of detainees.
But his efforts to try those suspects in civilian court have met stiff opposition from critics who argue the prison is needed in the battle against Islamist extremists.
Lamar Smith, chairman of U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee, called the trial a “near disaster.”
“While the administration will no doubt try to spin the verdict as a success, the truth is ... if Ghailani had been acquitted of just one more count, he would have been considered innocent of these heinous crimes,” the Texas Republican said in a statement.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder argued the sentence demonstrated the “strength of the American justice system in holding terrorists accountable.”
“Hundreds of individuals have now been convicted in federal court of terrorism or terrorism-related crimes since September 11, 2001,” Holder said, referring to the hijacked plane attacks by al Qaeda militants that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Ghailani declined to speak during the two-and-a-half-hour hearing in a packed Manhattan courtroom in which 11 survivors or relatives of the deceased read statements.
Ghailani, in a blue and white dress shirt, simply nodded twice when Kaplan announced the sentence.
Defense attorney Peter Quijano told reporters outside the courthouse the sentence had been expected and it rendered the jury’s acquittal of Ghailani on all but one count “essentially irrelevant.” He said the defense would appeal.
Ghailani was moved to Guantanamo Bay in late 2006 and transferred to New York in June 2009 to stand trial.
The defense team conceded from the start that Ghailani bought gas tanks and a truck later used in the attacks, but said he had no idea what they would be used for.
FBI officials, however, testified for the prosecution that they found traces of explosives on his clothes and a blasting cap in his armoire.
Additional reporting by Jim Vicini and Bernd Debusmann Jr.; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Todd Eastham