Will US Seek Death Penalty in First Trial of Former Gitmo Detainee?

08/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Brian Evans, Death Penalty Abolition Campaigner at Amnesty International USA

Last month, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani became the first Guantanamo Bay detainee to be brought to the United States for trial outside of the military commission system. His trial is set to begin in September 2010 in a regular federal court. While this is hopeful news for other Guantanamo detainees awaiting their day in court, if not their release, it also means that there is a possibility that the US government will pursue the death penalty should Ghailani be convicted.

Ahmed Ghailani, born in Zanzibar, Tanzania, was arrested in Pakistan in 2004 and brought to Guantanamo in 2006 for his alleged involvement with the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. For two years he was held in secret detention by the Central Intelligence Agency, after which he was transferred to solitary confinement at Guantanamo and ultimately charged by a military commission in 2008. Those charges have been dropped and he will now being tried in federal court on counts which include conspiring with Osama Bin Laden and other members of al-Qaeda to kill Americans, and charges of murder for each of the victims of the US Embassy attacks. Mr. Ghailani has pled not-guilty to all charges, saying that he was not a member of al-Qaeda and did not know about the attacks ahead of time.

Mr. Ghailani's case may be a test of President Obama's promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay, and may set a precedent for how similar cases might proceed. As a result, there will be a great deal of international attention given to his trial. It is especially important for the United States to demonstrate a commitment to human rights at this critical juncture by not seeking the death penalty for Ahmed Ghailani.

Additionally, the United States must investigate the conditions surrounding Mr. Ghailani's enforced disappearance. Such an investigation is required by Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the US is a party. Any information obtained under conditions that violate international standards must be declared inadmissible in court, and a thorough investigation of Mr. Ghailani's treatment in secret detention and at Guantanamo will be essential to ensuring he is given a fair trial.