|The US government says Ghailani bought explosives used to bomb an embassy in Tanzania in 1998 [GALLO/GETTY]
The first civilian trial of a terrorism suspect held at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has officially begun, with government prosecutors telling the jury that Ahmed Ghailani, a 36-year-old Tanzanian, played a key role in the al-Qaeda bombings of two US embassies in 1998.
"At this trial we will prove to you that both of these massacres in Kenya and Tanzania were the work of a single al-Qaeda cell," Nicholas Lewin, the assistant US attorney, said in his opening argument on Tuesday.
"This man, Ahmed Ghailani, was an active member of that cell. He and his accomplices were committed to al-Qaeda's overriding goal, to kill Americans."
Ghailani's trial, held at a federal court in Manhattan, is a test of President Barack Obama's decision to change course from the military tribunals instituted by his predecessor, George Bush, and try suspects arrested after the September 11 attacks in civilian courts.
Ghailani faces charges including murder and conspiracy to murder US citizens in connection with the bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 224 people, 12 of them US citizens, and left many more injured.
Those charges normally carry the death penalty, but Eric Holder, the US attorney general, elected to pursue only life imprisonment.
Steve Zissou, an attorney appointed by the court to defend Ghailani, argued in his opening statement that Ghailani, 22 years old at the time of the bombings, was an unwitting accomplice, "duped, innocently, to provide assistance in these attacks".
"This case is going to come down to a simple question: did Ahmed Ghailani know?" Zissou said. "Did he know what his friends were planning? Did he know what was going to happen? The answer to that question is no."
Key witness barred
The government has already faced one major setback in Ghailani's trial. Last week, Lewis Kaplan, the US district court judge, ruled that Hussein Abebe, a man who the government alleges sold explosives to Ghailani, could not testify at Ghailani's trial because the United States had coerced Ghailani into identifying him.
Ghailani was arrested by Pakistani forces in late July 2004 and later handed over to the US Central Intelligence Agency, which transferred him - like many other terrorism suspects after September 11 - to a secret "black site," where he was interrogated.
Critics have said the CIA's interrogation programme, which included infamous techniques like waterboarding, amounted to torture. Kaplan wrote in a court ruling that "extremely harsh" methods were employed on Ghailani by the CIA to get him to turn over information, and that the government, in order to avoid litigating the specific details, has asked him to assume everything Ghailani said in CIA custody was coerced.
Abebe, who prosecutors say is a "giant" witness would have testified to selling Ghailani five crates of dynamite in the town of Arusha, was arrested by Tanzanian authorities in August 2006 after Ghailani - without access to a lawyer - helped the CIA identify and locate him.
Though the US government lacks Abebe's testimony, Lewin said that prosecutors will still present witnesses who can testify that Ghailani bought oxygen and acetylene tanks as well as the white Nissan Atlas truck used in the Dar es Salaam attack.
Lewin said that Tanzanian shopkeepers, including a welder who sold the gas tanks to Ghailani, would testify. He provided details of the tanks, saying each of the 20 used in Dar es Salaam was five feet tall and weighed 150 pounds.
He also said a former roommate of Ghailani's and L'Houssaine Kherchtou, a former Moroccan al-Qaeda operative, would testify for the government.
Even if Ghailani is not convicted in Manhattan, he still faces charges before a military commission, and his status as an "enemy combatant," Kaplan wrote, means that he could still be held as something like a prisoner of war until "hostilities" between the United States and al-Qaeda and the Taliban come to an end.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies