|Ahmed Ghailani was found not guilty of all but one of the 286 charges levelled against him in November [Reuters]
A judge has sentenced the first Guantanamo detainee to have a US civilian trial to life in prison, saying anything the Tanzanian man suffered at the hands of the CIA and others "pales in comparison to the
suffering and the horror" caused by the bombing of two US embassies in East Africa in 1998.
US District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan on Tuesday sentenced Ahmed Ghailani to life, calling the attacks "horrific" and saying the deaths and damage they caused far outweighs "any and all considerations that have been advanced on behalf of the defendant." He also ordered Ghailani to pay $33m in
Kaplan announced the sentencing in a packed Manhattan courtroom after calling it a day of justice for the defendant, as well as for the families of 224 people who died in the twin 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
The victims included a dozen Americans, and thousands more who were injured.
As survivors and victims' loved ones spoke behind him, many in tears, Ghailani bowed his head and closed his eyes while gripping the edge of the defence table with both hands.
The judge said he wanted a sentence that "makes it crystal clear that others engaged or contemplating engaging in deadly acts of terrorism risk enormously serious consequences." He said he was satisfied that Ghailani knew and intended that people would be killed as a result of his actions and the conspiracy he joined.
A civilian test case
Ghailani, 36, was convicted late last year of conspiring to destroy government buildings but acquitted of more than 200 counts of murder and dozens of other charges. The charge carries a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison and a maximum of life. He had asked for leniency, saying he never intended to kill anyone and he was tortured.
Ghailani, a Tanzanian, was captured in Pakistan in 2004 and later interrogated at a secret CIA-run camp. He was moved to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2006 before being transferred to New York for prosecution in 2009.
The trial late last year at a lower Manhattan courthouse had been viewed as a test case for a goal stated by Barack Obama, the US president - putting other terrorism detainees, including self-professed September 11, 2001 attacks mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, on trial on US soil.
So far, Ghailani's is the only case to be tried as such and on Wednesday, it was reported that the Obama administration will be lifting the ban on military tribunals, allowing them to resume at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility.
The judge rejected Ghailani's pleas for leniency, saying whatever Ghailani suffered at the hands of the CIA and others "pales in comparison to the suffering and the horror he and his confederates caused."
Evidence at trial showed that Ghailani helped purchase bomb components prior to the attacks, including 15 gas tanks designed to enhance the power of the bombs, along with one of the bomb vehicles.
Written descriptions of FBI interviews quoted Ghailani as saying he realised a week before the bombings that they were intended to strike a US embassy. The jury did not see those descriptions, but they were submitted for Kaplan to consider for sentencing.
Ghailani's lawyers argued that he was duped by friends into participating in the attack and was upset when he saw the damage done.
Before sentencing, Peter Quijano, Ghailani's defence attorney, portrayed his client as a hero, saying he had provided US authorities with "intelligence and information that arguably saved lives and I submit that is not hyperbole."
He also said Ghailani cried when he learnt about the attacks. Ghailani declined to speak on his own behalf.
But outside the courthouse immediately after the life sentence was announced, US Attorney Preet Bharara said, "Today, our goal was achieved, as Ahmed Ghailani will never again breathe free air."
Meanwhile on Wednesday, a lawyer for a Syrian national held at Guantanamo said inmates had been staging protests at the facility for more than a week.
Ramzi Kassem, an assistant professor of law at the City University of New York, said his client had told him over the phone that the protests were inspired by the recent uprising in Tunisia.
"What he explained to me was that these peaceful protests, these sit-ins by the Guantanamo prisoners, have been going on for 12 days at this point," Kassem said.
"The prisoners are refusing to return to their cells and are putting up signs in English.
"They're essentially protesting the fact that they've been continuously imprisoned at Guantanamo for nearly a decade ... even though there are 170 prisoners at Guantanamo who were approved for release by the [George] Bush administration four years ago and then another group who were approved for release by the Obama administration two years ago.
"These men still sit at Guantanamo with no end in sight."