Am I the only one appalled by the consistency of the press in the coverage of the trial and verdict in the case of now-convicted terrorist, suspected al-Qaeda operative, Ahmed Ghailani? Ghailani was tried in a civilian court; tried for complicity in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya, and in Tanzania. Those bombings resulted in the loss of 224 lives. Government prosecutors said that terror suspect Ghailani purchased a truck and explosives; then he left Africa and went into hiding in Pakistan. In Ghailani’s behalf, his defense team said he was being “used by al-Qaeda,” and was never aware of the terrorism plot.
Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, born in Zanzibar, Tanzania, is known to be 35 or 36 years of age and has a wife and children. He is thought by military authorities to have been at one time a bodyguard and a cook for Osama bin Laden. He was tried according to the standards of evidence and testimony that have been developed and finely tuned in American courts for generations.
Many in the press, and in the political arena have considered as options in the arbitration of the current terror suspects, traditional American civilian courts, such as we read about and participate in daily in matters ranging to murder, kidnapping, civil disobedience, etcetera, and the alternative option, military tribunals which can provide quick trials in time of war. These tribunals are indicated when time constraints are involved, as well as in cases hampered by inability to obtain evidence. The “chain of evidence”, and rules regarding hearsay, always applied in civilian and criminal trials, may preclude conviction in these cases, if such restraints were applied. A military tribunal necessitates agreement of a majority of several military judges, high ranking officers, to obtain a guilty verdict. Decisions of a military tribunal cannot be appealed in federal court. The President, as Commander-in-Chief, or in some cases a panel of review, comprised of military personnel and, in some cases, civilians, can hear an appeal. Such tribunals do not satisfy most protections and guarantees provided by the United States Bill of Rights.
President George W. Bush ordered that certain detainees imprisoned at the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay were to be tried by military commissions. This decision sparked controversy and litigation. On June 29, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the power of the Bush administration to conduct military tribunals of suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay. Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani is one such detainee.
The press has been uniform in reporting their discontent with the verdict in the trial; they felt that a military tribunal would be more just, more likely to find guilt and to punish. They sought a guilty verdict on the broad range of charges, and a guarantee of a sentence of a life-time in confinement. They were and still are caught up in a quest for retribution. But it was a civilian jury that found Ghailani guilty of conspiracy; specifically, “conspiracy to damage or destroy U.S. property.” That jury did not register a finding of guilt for the remaining 284 charges, including murder, and the use of weapons of mass destruction. A key witness in the prosecution, Hussein Abebe, who is believed by many to have sold explosives to Ghailani, was prevented by Judge Lewis Kaplan from testifying on grounds that the CIA had derived the information by subjecting Ghailani to “rough questioning”. Defense attorney Peter Quijano said his client was subject to “enhanced interrogation” for 14 hours over a 5 day period. Prosecutor Michael Farbiarz at this revelation rose and said the information about the interrogation was “not supposed to be mentioned in open court.” Mr. Quijano withdrew the statement.
The New York Daily News feels that Obama and US Attorney General Eric Holder “gambled and nearly lost” by holding a civilian trial. It was felt that a military court martial with far fewer restrictions on evidence and witnesses, would produce the desired verdict. Impartiality was the last thing needed. This view is shared by the vast majority of American press outlets covering this terrorism case. Emotion seems to override clear thinking and judicial objectivity.
The National Post quotes legal expert Benjamin Wittes, of the Brookings Institute, as saying that the final sentence for Ghailani, which in fact may be the mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison, will “fail to quell the political storm.” He points out to those seeking retribution, “A terrorist hugging his lawyers in victory can’t be considered a confidence builder.” The Post agrees.
A Washington Times editorial on Thursday, November 18, compares this convicted conspirator with Osama bin Laden. The un-named author would like us to feel the same anger we might feel if bin Laden had been tried, then walked free from the courtroom.
One exception to the irrational vehemence expressed by the media toward this finding that fell short of press expectations is the view of National Public Radio. NPR’s Carrie Johnson called the trial a “test run” for the 174 men still detained in Guantanamo. It was a test, she said, whether testimony or evidence attained through “enhanced interrogations” would be admissible, and whether a suspects Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial was violated. Ahmed Ghailani was held for nearly five years awaiting trial.