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US Court Sentences Guantanamo Detainee to Life in Prison

Ahmed Ghailani (file photo)

The first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a U.S. civilian court was sentenced Tuesday for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a 36-year-old Tanzanian, declined to speak before New York federal Judge Lewis A. Kaplan sentenced him to life in prison and ordered him to pay $33 million in restitution.

In a written statement, U.S. attorney general Eric Holder applauded the sentence, saying it showed “the strength of the American justice system in holding terrorists accountable for their actions.”

A jury had convicted Ghailani in November on one count of conspiracy while acquitting him on more than 280 other counts stemming from the truck bombings at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. 224 people died, and thousands more were injured in the attacks.

Ghailani’s lawyer, Peter Quijano, had urged the judge not to levy a life sentence, but to reduce his sentence because of what he called torture of Ghailani by U.S. interrogators, and because Ghailani had provided the U.S. with valuable, even life-saving intelligence. But Judge Kaplan was unswayed, and said that whatever Ghailani had suffered “at the hands of the CIA or our government” paled in comparison to the suffering his actions had caused. He said Ghailani could pursue remedies for mistreatment separately.

Eleven victims and survivors of the bombings, many of them from Africa, spoke at the sentencing hearing.

Sue Bartley told of the loss of both her husband, Julian, a U.S. diplomat, and their son Jay, a college student, in the Kenya bombing. Howard Kavaler, whose wife Prabhi died in the Kenya attack, said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and hopes that Ghailani knows that the “world regards him as a cowardly infidel." Susan Hirsch, an American, spoke about losing her husband, a Kenyan Muslim whose life, she said, was guided by Islamic ideals of faith, charity and kindness.

Elizabeth Maloba, whose husband was killed, said, “My heart still cries when I think of the lifeless bodies.” She said that widows in Kenyan society lacked standing that they could not regain, and told of another woman widowed by the bombing who committed suicide in 2006, leaving behind two small children.

James Ndeda, a worker at the Nairobi embassy, said Ghailani should be sentenced one year for each of those killed, and noted that if someone dies in jail in Kenya, “His grave is chained until the end of the sentence.” He said that Ghailani will have an easier life in prison in the U.S. than “some of us” in Kenya. “You can see he is healthier than us,” he said, looking at the back of the defendant, who never turned around to face the victims as they spoke.

Ghailani’s lawyers maintain that he was never a full-fledged member of Al Qaeda, but a naïve young man who was tricked into buying a truck and explosives used in the Tanzania bombing. A recently unsealed court filing included letters from his former military lawyers describing Ghailani a “calm, gentle, kind person,” who is not a jihadist or anti-western, and which say that he “wells up in tears any time he thinks about or talks about those who were injured or killed in the embassy bombings.”

Defense attorney Peter Quijano told reporters outside the court in lower Manhattan that he was disappointed but not surprised by the sentence.

“Notwithstanding the fact that a jury found Ahmed Ghailani not guilty on all but one of 284 counts, including all of the conspiracy counts to bomb the embassies and all the conspiracy and substantive counts to commit intentional murder,” he said, “for the purposes of federal sentencing, on a single count of destroying buildings owned by the United States, a count which does not carry a mandatory life sentence - all those other verdicts are rendered essentially irrelevant.”

Quijano said Ghailani feels regret but not remorse. “He feels great sadness for the reality that he engaged in some conduct that helped lead to this,” Quijano said, “but he has been consistent all along that he did not know he was engaged in those aspects of conduct which led to these bombings.”

Ghailani was captured in Pakistan in 2004, held in CIA custody for two years, and then transferred to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from 2006 to 2009. His acquittal on all but one count in November has caused the Obama administration to shift its plans for terrorism trials back to military tribunals rather than civilian courts.