First Guantanamo detainee arrives in US for trial

June 9, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
The first Guantanamo Bay detainee arrived on American soil for trial on Tuesday, under heavy guard and in the dead of night. The transport of Ahmed Ghailani underscored the Obama administration's determination to close the Cuban detention center despite Republican alarms about holding terror proceedings in the U.S.

President Barack Obama has said keeping Ghailani from coming to the United States "would prevent his trial and conviction." House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said Tuesday's move was "the first step in the Democrats' plan to import terrorists into America."

Ghailani, accused of being a bomb-maker, document forger and aide to Osama bin Laden, was brought to New York to await trial in connection with bombings that killed more than 200 people at the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya a decade ago.

U.S. Marshals took custody of Ghailani from his military jailers and transferred him to a federal lockup in lower Manhattan that currently holds financial swindler Bernard Madoff, and once held mob scion John "Junior" Gotti and blind terror leader Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman.

Ghailani's trial will be an important test case for President Barack Obama's plan to close the detention center at Guantanamo in seven months and bring some of the suspects to trial.

Attorney General Eric Holder said, "The Justice Department has a long history of securely detaining and successfully prosecuting terror suspects through the criminal justice system, and we will bring that experience to bear in seeking justice in this case."

Ghailani, a Tanzanian, was to appear before Judge Loretta Preska. He was indicted for the al-Qaida bombings in 1998 of U.S. embassies that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

"For us, it's like yesterday," said Sue Bartley, a Washington-area resident who lost her husband, Julian Leotis Bartley Sr., then U.S. consul general to Kenya, and her son, Julian "Jay" Bartley Jr.

"The embassy bombings were a precursor to 9/11. And even though we know that an American embassy located in any country is American soil, I don't think people really understand that," she said.

The U.S. response to the 2001 terror attacks -- including the opening of the Guantanamo detention center -- could also complicate Ghailani's case, as defense lawyers are likely to mount legal challenges based on the circumstances of his capture, detention and treatment over the years.

Justice Department officials would not say Tuesday what would be done with Ghailani if he were acquitted, but in past cases a non-citizen defendant would be turned over to immigration authorities for deportation.

There will also be political challenges to Ghailani's trial, which puts him directly into the U.S. criminal justice system.

Congressional Republicans have repeatedly contended that transferring terrorist suspects to U.S. soil will threaten public safety. The Guantanamo issue has seemed one of the few issues falling the Republicans' way, as polls suggest that most Americans want to keep the Cuba-based prison operating.

But if Ghailani can be handled without serious incident in New York and elsewhere, the GOP argument may lose steam and Congress may rethink its refusal to fund the closing of Guantanamo. The move also could bolster Obama's efforts to persuade other nations to accept some detainees from the prison.

U.S. officials contend Ghailani began a terrorist career on a bicycle delivering bomb parts and rose through the al-Qaida ranks to become an aide to bin Laden.

After the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings at U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Ghailani worked his way up the al-Qaida ranks, according to military prosecutors.

He was categorized as a high-value detainee by U.S. authorities after he was captured in Pakistan in 2004, and he was transferred to the detention center at the U.S. naval base in Cuba two years later.

Since his capture, Ghailani has denied knowing that the TNT and oxygen tanks he delivered would be used to make a bomb. He also has denied buying a vehicle used in one of the attacks, saying he could not drive.

Not only Republican lawmakers have opposed bringing Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. for trial, even in heavily guarded settings. Obama faces pressure from across the political spectrum over his plan to close the detention center. Democrats have said they want to see Obama's plan for closing the base before approving money to finance it, and Republicans are fighting to keep Guantanamo open.

The decision to try Ghailani in New York also revives a long-dormant case charging bin Laden and other top al-Qaida leadership with plotting the embassy attacks, which led then-President Bill Clinton to launch cruise missile attacks two weeks later on bin Laden's Afghan camps.

Four other men have been tried and convicted in the New York courthouse for their roles in the embassy attacks. All were sentenced to life in prison.

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Associated Press Writers Charles Babington in Washington and Larry Neumeister and Verena Dobnik in New York contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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