WASHINGTON -- Unshackled and wearing no handcuffs, Ahmed Ghailani walked into a federal courtroom in New York City on June 9 and told the judge that he was not guilty of the terrorist acts the United States says he committed.
With his historic appearance in court, Ghailani has become the face of the White House’s plan to close the Cuban prison and try some suspects in the U.S. civilian criminal court system, despite criticism from some lawmakers that bringing terror suspects to America will endanger the public.
Ghailani was secretly flown in the pre-dawn hours of June 9 from the U.S. naval base in Cuba to New York to begin trial proceedings in connection with the 1998 Al-Qaeda bombings that killed 224 people at U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
The United States accuses the Tanzanian of being a bomb maker, document forger, and aide to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
He has been charged with 286 criminal counts, which includes one murder charge for each of the victims who died in the embassy attacks and additional charges of conspiring with bin Laden and other members of Al-Qaeda to kill Americans around the world.
If found guilty, he could face the death penalty.
A Test For Obama
Ghailani had previously told a military panel at Guantanamo that he didn’t realize that the canisters of TNT and other equipment he delivered in Tanzania were for making a bomb. He apologized to the U.S. government and said he attended an Al-Qaeda training camp because he wanted military training for self-defense.
Ghailani’s appearance in a U.S. court marks the first time a U.S. terrorist detainee has been transferred from the government’s controversial open-ended detention system to the U.S. civilian criminal justice system.
His military-appointed defense lawyers are expected to raise a number of legal issues in an attempt to get the charges dismissed. Experts say the defense will likely focus on the circumstances of Ghailani’s capture, detention, and treatment over the years.
After he was captured in Pakistan in 2004, Ghailani was categorized as a high-value detainee by U.S. authorities. In 2006, he was transferred to the detention center at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the time had come for Ghailani to be held accountable for his role in the attacks.
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 represents an important test for U.S. President Barack Obama, who plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center within seven months. In order to do that, at least some of the remaining inmates will have to be tried in U.S. courts.
Opposition In Congress
Obama has encountered stiff opposition to that plan from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who say that transferring terrorist suspects to U.S. soil poses a threat to public safety.
Last month, Obama addressed his critics and argued that the U.S. court system has proven it is capable of trying and convicting terrorists.
“Some have derided our federal courts as incapable of handling the trials of terrorists. They are wrong. Our courts and our juries, our citizens, are tough enough to convict terrorists," Obama said. "The record makes that clear. Ramsey Yusef tried to blow up the World Trade Center. He was convicted in our courts and is serving a life sentence in U.S. prisons.”
The White House is hoping that Ghailani’s trial will proceed without incident and end in a conviction that will silence critics and smooth the way for more trials.
One of the strongest critics of Obama’s plan lashed out at the administration as Ghailani’s plea was being heard in federal court. The opposition leader in the House of Representatives, John Boehner, issued a statement condemning Ghailani’s transfer.
He called it “the first step in the Democrats' plan to import terrorists into America.”
Boehner added, “Without a plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the administration has made the decision to begin transferring these terrorists into the United States, in spite of the overwhelming opposition of the American people and serious questions from members of Congress of both parties.”
Polls show most Americans want to keep the Cuba-based prison open.
Boehner said his party is drafting new legislation, called the Keep Terrorists Out Of America Act, that would limit Obama’s ability to transfer any further detainees out of Guantanamo Bay.
Neither the White House nor Justice Department officials would say what will happen with Ghailani if he is acquitted. In response to questioning by reporters, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs noted that the district where Ghailani is being tried “has a very good record as it relates to trying and convicting terror suspects.”
U.S. policy is to turn noncitizen defendants who are not convicted of a crime over to immigration authorities for deportation.
Ghailani is being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan until his next court appearance, which is set for June 16.