A judge on Tuesday sentenced to life in prison the first Guantanamo Bay detainee tried in a civilian court, an outcome that bolsters Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s much-criticized desire to prosecute suspected terrorists on U.S. soil.
“Today’s sentencing of Ahmed Ghailani shows yet again the strength of the American justice system in holding terrorists accountable for their actions,” Mr. Holder said in a statement. “Ghailani will now rightly serve the rest of his life in prison for his role in the attacks against American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that left 224 dead, including 12 Americans.”
Ghailani, 36, was acquitted in November of all but one of the hundreds of charges he faced in connection with the 1998 bombings, leading to intense criticisms of the Obama administration for prosecuting a suspected terrorist in civilian court.
But the one charge on which he was convicted — conspiracy to destroy U.S. property — carried a potential sentence of life in prison. That was the maximum punishment he would have received if convicted of all 224 counts of murder as well as 60 other charges. The government previously elected not to pursue the death penalty.
U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan in New York said Ghailani deserved a life sentence because he knew and intended that people would be killed as a result of his actions and the conspiracy he joined.
“This crime was so horrible,” Judge Lewis said in a packed courtroom. “It was a cold-blooded killing and maiming of innocent people on an enormous scale. It wrecked the lives of thousands more … who had their lives changed forever. The purpose of the crime was to create terror by causing death and destruction on a scale that was hard to imagine in 1998 when it occurred.”
Judge Kaplan also imposed a $33 million fine.
Ghailani’s trial has been viewed as a test for the Obama administration’s aim of putting other terrorist suspects, including self-professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, held at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on trial on U.S. soil. The results of the case have given fuel to both sides in a heated debate that largely has kept the administration from holding such trials.
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, in November called the verdict “disgusting” and “tragic,” saying it demonstrated “the absolute insanity of the Obama administration’s decision to try al Qaeda terrorists in civilian courts.”
Mr. King’s remarks were far more measured in a terse statement released Tuesday: “If anyone deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison, it is a murderer and terrorist such as Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani.”
The commander of the USS Cole when it was attacked by al Qaeda terrorists in 2000, also a critic of the Obama administration’s plans to prosecute terrorists in federal court, reiterated those concerns Tuesday, calling the Ghailani case “a mockery of justice and is further proof that civilian trials for enemy combatants are a foolish and misguided strategy.”
But Kirk S. Lippold, now retired from the Navy, also praised the sentence meted out by Judge Lewis.
“The sentence of life in prison is the correct, and only acceptable, punishment for Ahmed Ghailani,” Cmdr. Lippold said in a statement. “The families of those killed by these attacks deserved justice and anything less than the maximum sentence would have been a failure. The punishment fits the crime.”
Critics such as Mr. King and Cmdr. Lippold have urged the Obama administration to prosecute terrorists before military tribunals, while supporters of the administration’s plans said the Ghailani case showed the feasibility of trials in civilian court.
“The verdict and sentencing will be internationally recognized as the product of an open and established system, unlike the tarnished military commissions system,” said Geneve Mantri, Amnesty International USA government relations director for national security and human rights. “This was a very difficult case, needlessly poisoned by the legacies of torture, and it was dealt with quickly, with dexterity and absolutely no disruptions.”