Lessons of Nearly-Lost Terrorist Trial

Ahmed Ghailani was acquitted of 279 out of 280 charges

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Ahmed Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in U.S. civilian court, has been acquitted on 279 of the 280 charges he faced for his alleged role in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The trial was seen as a major test for President Barack Obama's hope to bring a number of current and former Guantanamo detainees before civilian courts, thus addressing the long-running legal problems of what to do with the suspected terrorists and military facility that houses them. Ghailani's prosecutors struggled against legal challenges surrounding his alleged torture while held at a CIA black site, which prevented prosecutors from calling key witnesses or presenting related evidence. The now-convicted Ghailani faces up to twenty years in prison. Here's what legal, national security, and civil liberties commentators say the trial will mean for future terrorism trials.

  • Verdict Is About Torture, Not Terrorism  The New Yorker's Amy Davidson writes, "Let’s be clear: if time in the extra-judicial limbo of black sites, and the torture that caused some evidence to be excluded, makes prosecutors’ jobs harder, the problem is with the black sites and the torture, and not with the civilian trials that might eventually not work out quite the way everyone likes. It’s a point that bears some repeating.  Our legal system is not a machine for producing the maximum number of convictions, regardless of the law.  Jurors are watching the government, too, as well they should. Ghailani today could be anyone tomorrow."
  • 'Miscarriage of Justice'  The Weekly Standard's Thomas Joscelyn fumes at the jury and laments that key evidence and testimony never reached the jury due to the judge's decision to bar it over concerns it had been acquired through torture. "It is a mystery how the jury could find that these facts failed to add up to a guilty verdict on all of the murder counts. ... Instead of dispensing with Ghailani’s unconvincing story once and for all, the jury waffled. Thus, a terrorist who helped kill 224 people was found 'not guilty' of their murders. No one should be 'pleased' with that verdict, even if Ghailani will likely serve many years in prison."
  • Victory for Constitutional Rights  Salon's Glenn Greenwald writes, "The verdict will provoke predictable, fact-free, fear-mongering attacks on the American judicial system and on President Obama for using it in this case ... but this outcome actually proves the opposite. ... When a reviled defendant is acquitted in court, and torture-obtained evidence is excluded, that isn't proof that the justice system is broken; it's proof that it works. A 'justice system' which guarantees convictions -- or which allows the Government to rely on evidence extracted from torture -- isn't a justice system at all, by definition. ... The Founders designed it this way on purpose.  And they did so with the full knowledge that clearly guilty and even extremely evil people would sometimes receive something other than the punishment they deserve."
  • Not Ideal Outcome, But Don't Run to Military Commissions  National security law blogger Benjamin Wittes reviews the troubled history of military commissions used to try terrorists, finding much poorer success. "Trial in federal court didn’t work out the way the Obama administration wanted, but it wasn’t a disaster–and we can’t honestly say it worked out worse than the military commission alternative would likely have done."
  • Ruling Will Be Boon to Gitmo Proponents  The Washington Post's Peter Finn predicts, "The failure to convict Ghailani, a native of Tanzania, on the most serious terrorism charges will bolster the arguments of those who say the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be kept open, both to host military commissions for some prisoners and to hold others indefinitely and without trial under the laws of war."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.