Life in Prison for First Domestically-Tried Guantanamo Detainee

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Ahmed Ghailani, the first Guantanamo Bay detainee to be tried in the United States, received a life sentence Tuesday for his involvement in planning the 1998 bombings of two US embassies. According to the New York Times Ghailani was originally only charged with one count of "conspiracy to destroy government buildings and property, while being acquitted of more than 280 charges of murder and conspiracy." But today, U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan decided that Ghailani was aware that the conspiracy he joined intended to kill people, and sentenced him to life without parole.

Many are reacting to the conviction with a sense of victory, hoping that Ghailani is only the first of many terrorists the US will prosecute. But others have a more cynical take on the future of trying Guantanamo detainees.

  • A Success for the U.S.  The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen acknowledges Ghailani's sentence as a success and points out, particularly to conservatives who opposed his trial, that some valuable evidence was deemed unusable in the trial because Ghailani had been tortured at Guantanamo under the Bush administration's policies. Politically, Benen explains:
The administration may have intended to use this trial to demonstrate a larger point, and to a very real extent, it worked -- there were no security threats and no opportunities for the accused to use the proceedings as a platform. Instead, U.S. prosecutors stuck to the rule of law, secured a conviction, and put away the accused bad guy. The administration wanted a public, transparent, legitimate trial, with lawyers and a jury, to help demonstrate America's commitment to its own principles, and the result is one the public, regardless of ideology, can be satisfied with.
  • Don't Expect Much of an Impact  Balkinization blogger Jonathan Hafetz predicts the short-term impact of this conviction will be small, as Congress "has enacted legislation barring the administration from using defense department funds to prosecute any Guantanamo detainee in federal court for at least the current fiscal year," putting a damper on the Attorney General's plans for prosecuting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others with suspected involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
  • A Promising Sign  At the Washington Post, Marc Thiessen notes that the case "underscores the necessity of [Obama's] quiet decision to lift the ban he imposed after his inauguration on new military commission trials at Guantanamo." Thiessen thinks, writing before the State of the Union, that this would be a good opportunity to remind Congress and the country that the government is on the right track to prosecuting Guantanamo prisoners. "If the president wants a moment of bipartisan applause Tuesday night, he should announce that Khalid Sheik Mohammed will soon face justice before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay. Obama has recognized reality and is pivoting to the center on economic matters. He should do the same when it comes to the war on terror."
  • Don't Let the Push for Military Tribunals Fool You  Raha Wala, a Georgetown fellow, airs his problems with Marc Thiessen's take on the conviction in The Huffington Post. Obama's decision to reinstate military commissions might make the process seem like the best way to try terrorism suspects but, he writes, "nothing could be farther from the truth."
Since the terrorist attacks on 9/11, federal courts have convicted more that 400 individuals of terrorism-related crimes, with a conviction rate of over 90%. In that same time period, military commissions, suffering from one setback after another, have only convicted five, two of whom are free today. Moreover, because most simple acts of terrorism are not war crimes, convictions of many Guantanamo detainees in military commissions may be overturned when appellate courts consider jurisdictional objections. By contrast, federal prosecutors have all sorts of anti-terrorism statutes available to convict individuals of terrorism-related offenses without worrying about similar legal challenges.
  • Civilian Trials Aren't Necessarily the Best Method  Jack Goldsmith at Lawfare warns against the assumption that the success in prosecuting Ghailani proves civilian trials are the best method for "incapacitating terrorists." He clarifies:
The essential quandary for civilian trials (and military commission trials as well) is that the government cannot afford to bring cases against high-value terrorists if there is a chance of actual release, and so it will only bring cases in which it reserves the right to detain following acquittal (or possibly after the sentence has run).  There is no naked trial option for high-value GTMO terrorists – only trials with a backup of military detention.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.