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Jury Decision Renews Debate on Civilian Terror Trials in US

Ahmed Ghailani faces sentencing in January
Ahmed Ghailani faces sentencing in January

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This is IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

On Wednesday, a jury in federal court in New York City announced its decision in the case of Ahmed Ghailani. The Tanzanian was the first terrorism suspect held at Guantanamo ever to face trial in a civilian court instead of a military court.

He was charged in the al-Qaida bombings of the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya on August seventh, nineteen ninety-eight. The attacks killed two hundred twenty-four people, including twelve Americans.

Government lawyers said Mr. Ghailani bought the truck and tanks of gas used in the bombing in Tanzania. The government brought two hundred eighty-five charges against him, mostly for murder.

But the twelve-member jury found him guilty of just one charge: conspiracy to destroy United States property with an explosive device. The crime carries a sentence of at least twenty years in prison and a possible life sentence.

Mr. Ghailani is thirty-six. He faces sentencing in January.

He was the fifth person found guilty in the embassy bombings. The other four were also tried in civilian court in New York and received life sentences in two thousand one. But they had never been held at the American military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Senator Joe Lieberman says the jury's decision makes it highly unlikely there will be many more civilian trials of Guantanamo detainees. Senator Lieberman, an Independent, heads the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

JOE LIEBERMAN: "To me, we are in a war. And people you capture in a war should be held in a military setting."

But Tom Malinowski of the group Human Rights Watch defended the jury's verdict, after a trial in a city that was also attacked by al-Qaida.

TOM MALINOWSKI: "It shows that American courts and American juries are independent and thoughtful and take their responsibilities very, very seriously."

Republican Representative John Boehner -- soon to become the speaker of the House -- urged President Obama to try future suspects in military courts. The president wants to close Guantanamo, but the Ghailani verdict could make it even harder for him to get Congress to agree.

Defense lawyer Peter Quijano told the court that al-Qaida members tricked Mr. Ghailani into unknowingly helping them. He says the defense team will appeal the conviction on the single charge.

Mr. Ghailani was captured six years ago in Pakistan. The Central Intelligence Agency held him there for two years before he arrived at Guantanamo.

The government's case suffered a setback before the trial began. Judge Lewis Kaplan rejected evidence from a government witness. Hussein Abebe was expected to tell the court that he had sold explosives to Mr. Ghailani.

But Judge Kaplan said the government violated Mr. Ghailani's constitutional rights. The judge said Mr. Abebe was identified as a direct result of statements made by Mr. Ghailani under duress while held by the CIA. Mr. Ghailani's lawyers say he was tortured. The government would not discuss details of his treatment.

Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch thinks a military court would have reached the same decision as the civilian jury.

TOM MALINOWSKI: "The military commissions have been reformed by the Congress and the Obama administration in a way that prohibits absolutely the use of any evidence obtained through torture or cruelty."

And that's IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.


Contributing: Michael Bowman, Peter Fedynsky and Carolyn Presutti