Guantanamo Detainee Ahmed Ghailani Convicted, Conservatives Enraged

Our guest blogger is Ken Gude, Managing Director of the National Security and International Policy Program at American Progress.

A courtroom sketch of Ahmed Ghailani

Ahmed Ghailani has been convicted in federal criminal court for his role in the 1998 Embassy bombings in East Africa. The judge in the case will sentence Ghailani to a minimum of 20 years and a maximum of life in prison, guaranteeing a very long sentence for the first Guantanamo detainee to be prosecuted in civilian court.

Naturally, this has made conservatives very angry. They prefer that all terrorism suspects be prosecuted in military commissions, presumably because they believe the sentences delivered in federal criminal court are too long, and they want Guantanamo detainees to be released sooner.

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) called it “a tragic wake-up call to the Obama Administration to immediately abandon its ill-advised plan to try Guantánamo terrorists” in federal courts. “We must treat them as wartime enemies and try them in military commissions at Guantánamo,” Rep. King said. Liz Cheney’s group Keep America Safe railed that “bad ideas have dangerous consequences… We urge the president: End this reckless experiment. Reverse course. Use the military commissions at Guantanamo that Congress has authorized.”

Ghailani and several other co-conspirators were indicted for their roles in the bombings in 1998. Four were convicted in federal criminal court in 2001. Ghailani remained at large until he was captured in Pakistan in 2004, but rather than bringing him to the United States to stand trial like the others, he was put in a secret CIA-run prison for two years and tortured. In 2006, he was transferred to Guantanamo, where he was held until his June 2009 move to New York to stand trial.

The choices the Bush administration made to hold Ghailani in a secret prison, torture him, and delay any trial had several negative effects on the prosecution’s case. Two key witnesses that had participated in the earlier trial have died since 2004. None of the statements Ghailani made while in custody were admissible at trial, and an additional witness was ruled ineligible because of the conditions of Ghailani’s “enhanced interrogation” at secret CIA prisons. Yet despite all of the problems caused by the Bush administration’s decisions, Ghailani was convicted in a fair and transparent system of justice, and will be sentenced by the judge to serve at least 20 years, and probably more, in federal prison.

Understand, the military commissions King and Cheney so favor have held just four trials in their nine years of existence. Two of the defendants have reached guilty pleas, one defendant presented a defense at trial, and another boycotted his trial and was convicted without his involvement. Of the four, two have already been released and have been living freely in their home countries for the last two years, and one was convicted of murder and will serve a maximum of eight years. Only the defendant who offered no defense received a long sentence — life.

The clear and unambiguous record of the military commissions is that they deliver shorter sentences than civilian courts. In fact, the minimum sentence that Ghailani can receive is longer than the combined sentences of the three military commissions defendants who participated in their trial. Yet this is the trial system that conservatives demand. The only conclusion is that they want these Guantanamo detainees to be released quickly.