A Tanzanian man accused in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies was cleared of terror charges Wednesday, but could still face life in prison in a dramatic end to the first civilian trial of a former Guantanamo Bay inmate.
A jury in New York federal court returned the surprise verdict after five days of deliberations, finding Ahmed Ghailani not guilty on all but one of 286 charges.
He was found guilty only of conspiracy to destroy US property, which carries a sentence of at least 20 years and up to life in prison. Sentencing was set for January 25.
The trial of Ghailani, a baby-faced 36-year-old, has been closely watched as a test of President Barack Obama’s plans to shut down the notorious prison at a US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and move inmates into the civilian justice system.
Opponents have doubted the courts’ ability to handle such cases, while some observers question how defendants who have been deprived of all rights, often for years, can then be prosecuted in the same way as ordinary suspects.
During the four-week trial, prosecutors painted Ghailani as a scheming plotter who helped Al-Qaeda bombers prepare the truck bombs that slammed almost simultaneously into the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies, killing 224 people and injuring thousands more.
His defense attorney, Peter Quijano, called no witnesses and Ghailani did not take the stand.
Instead, through cross-examination and a blistering closing argument, Quijano sought to undermine the credibility of witnesses produced by the government and he portrayed Ghailani as an innocent dupe who was used by Al-Qaeda, but who knew nothing of the plot.
Department of Justice spokesman Mathew Miller said the result was positive.
“We respect the jury’s verdict and are pleased that Ahmed Ghailani now faces a minimum of 20 years in prison and a potential life sentence for his role in the embassy bombings,” he said in Washington.
But opponents of Obama’s stalled plans to shutter Guantanamo were likely to see the outcome as a blow to the White House.
In particular, skeptics could seize on the fact that the presiding judge, Lewis Kaplan, at the outset of the trial ruled to exclude the government’s star witness.
The barred witness, Hussein Abebe, was to testify that he sold Ghailani explosives.
But Kaplan said the witness was inadmissible because he had been located by US officers through information obtained from Ghailani while under extreme duress in CIA custody.
The ruling severely weakened the government case. It also went to the core of what many consider to be the problem with applying regular legal codes to defendants who, like Ghailani, have been held in secret CIA prisons and have been tortured.
In another quirk showing how different the case was from ordinary criminal trials, Kaplan also wrote before the trial got underway that even if Ghailani were found not guilty he could possibly spend the rest of his life in jail as an “enemy combatant.”