NEW YORK (Reuters) -- The United States has transferred the first detainee from Guantanamo Bay to stand trial in a U.S. civilian court in a test case for President Barack Obama's plans to close the controversial prison for foreign terrorism suspects.
Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba since 2006 accused of involvement in the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa, was escorted to New York by U.S. marshals, the Department of Justice said.
Ghailani faces 286 counts, including charges of conspiring with Osama bin Laden and other members of Al-Qaeda to kill Americans anywhere in the world, and separate charges of murder for each of the 224 people killed in the bombings in Tanzania and Kenya on August 7, 1998.
Bringing Ghailani to the United States and putting him on trial in a civilian court will test Obama's contention -- countering concern from some in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress -- that some of the 240 detainees at the camp can be safely prosecuted and imprisoned in the United States.
Ghailani was transferred three weeks after Obama laid out his plans for closing the Guantanamo camp by January 2010. The prison, long condemned by human rights groups, was opened in 2002 under President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.'Plan To Import Terrorists'
Republican Congressional leaders were quick to criticize Ghailani's transfer, saying it endangered U.S. security and was opposed by most Americans.
"This is the first step in the Democrats' plan to import terrorists into America," House Republican Leader John Boehner said in a statement.
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said using the U.S. court system created the risk of "having classified information get out that's useful to other terrorists."
But a senior Obama administration official called the move a "significant step forward in bringing swift and certain justice to the detainees at Guantanamo."
"There will be more indictments and trials in the weeks to come for those who have committed crimes against the United States or conspired to," the official said.
In a speech on Guantanamo last month, Obama laid out options for the detainees held there:
- those to be tried in U.S. criminal courts
- those to be released or sent to other countries
- those to be tried in revised military tribunals
- those whose release would pose a danger but who cannot be prosecuted.
In a statement on the Ghailani transfer, 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."
The department said there are currently 216 inmates in U.S. prisons who have some connection to terrorism, including Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahmann and Ramzi Yousef, who were convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Zacarias Moussaoui, who was convicted of conspiring with Al-Qaeda to crash planes into buildings as part of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Human rights groups criticized Obama after his speech last month for leaving open the option of trials in military tribunals -- which were set up under Bush -- and the possibility of indefinite detention.Ghailani Case
Zachary Katznelson, legal director of Reprieve, a London-based group of human rights lawyers who work on Guantanamo cases said of the Ghailani case: "This should be a model for other cases as well. Suspects should be brought to civilian courts, which are tried and tested and which get the job done, rather to military courts where they are essentially making it up as they go along."
Several of the charges against Ghailani, including murder of U.S. employees at the embassies and use and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction against U.S. nationals, carry maximum sentences of death or life in prison.
Eleven people were killed and at least 85 were wounded in the embassy bombing in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and 213 people were killed in Nairobi, Kenya.
Ghailani is charged with helping to buy a truck and oxygen and acetylene tanks used in the Tanzania bombing, and of loading boxes of TNT, detonators, and other equipment into the back of the truck in the weeks immediately before the bombing.
At a 2007 hearing at Guantanamo Bay to determine that he was an "enemy combatant," Ghailani confessed and apologized for supplying equipment used in the Tanzania bombing but said he did not know the supplies would be used to attack the embassy, according to military transcripts.