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Why Trial Date for African Embassy Bombing Suspect Is Good News

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OK, so nearly 12 years after he was indicted for his alleged part in the African embassy bombings in August 1998, over six years since he was seized after a gunfight in Gujrat, Pakistan in July 2004, and four years after his transfer to Guantánamo -- after two years in secret CIA prisons, where, he says, he was "a victim of the cruel 'enhanced interrogation techniques'" -- Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian and one of 14 supposedly "high-value detainees" transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006, will face a trial in a federal court in New York. On Thursday, Federal Court Judge Lewis Kaplan set a date of September 13, 2010 for his trial to begin.

This is ironic for three reasons: firstly, because it means that Ghailani -- the first Guantánamo prisoner to make it to the U.S. mainland -- will persistently expose the lies of the cowardly, scaremongering politicians who recently whipped up a frenzy about bringing prisoners to the mainland when he fails to escape from prison over the next 14 months; secondly, because it should demonstrate to the Obama administration that federal courts work, whereas Ghailani's proposed trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo (the Dick Cheney-inspired system that Obama has hinted he wants to revive) came to nothing and would almost certainly have lacked legitimacy had it gone ahead; and thirdly, because it demonstrates that the five years from the date of his capture to his first appearance in a New York courtroom in June -- when he pleaded not guilty to the 286 charges against him -- was a complete waste of time (if that isn't too light-hearted a description of the Bush administration's chronically cruel and obtuse program of "extraordinary rendition" and torture), and the Justice Department is clearly fortunate that, notwithstanding Ghailani's claims of torture in secret CIA prisons, his case appears to be relatively straightforward to prosecute.

As I explained in an article in May, when the forthcoming trial was first announced, Ghailani was charged, inter alia, with "assist[ing] in the purchase of the Nissan truck as well as the oxygen and acetylene tanks that were used in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania," and is "further alleged to have participated in loading boxes of TNT, cylinder tanks, batteries, detonators, fertilizer and sand bags into the back of the truck in the weeks immediately before the bombing." He is also charged with forging documents in Afghanistan, and working as a cook and a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.

What makes his case so apparently clear-cut is that he has not refuted being an accessory to the Tanzanian bombing, and, in fact, admitted during his Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Guantánamo in 2007 that he "bought the TNT used in the bombing, purchased a cell phone used by another person involved in the attack and was present when a third person bought a truck used in the attack." Moreover, he apologized for his involvement, saying that he did not know that the supplies would be used to attack the embassy, and stated, "I would like to apologize to the United States government for what I did before ... It was without my knowledge [of] what they were doing, but I helped them ... And I'm sorry for what happened to those families who lost, who lost their friends and their beloved ones."

On Wednesday, however, his lawyers caused a stir in court by asking the government to preserve the "black sites" where Ghailani was held by the CIA. As Reuters explained, the lawyers "said they needed access to the secret detention sites, whose locations abroad have not been publicly identified, to gather evidence and inspect whether any statements the Tanzanian made under interrogation were reliable."

As AFP described it, one of his lawyers, Peter Quijano, said, "The inspection of the CIA 'Black Sites' where the defendant was detained, subjected to interrogation techniques, interrogated and made statements is necessary," because "it appears undeniable that the defendant was subjected to harsh conditions and harsh interrogation techniques while detained in CIA 'Black Sites'" and "it is believed that the defendant was interrogated and made statements after being subjected to a 'harsh regime employing a combination of physical and psychological ill-treatment with an aim of obtaining compliance and extracting information.'"

According to the Associated Press, Ghailani's legal team added that it would be "another two months before they obtain security clearance necessary to visit the sites, and they fear they will be dismantled by then because the CIA on April 9 indicated it will 'decommission' the interrogation locations." In response, one of the prosecutors, David Raskin, told Judge Kaplan that the government "would preserve the locations for now." Kaplan said that he was pleased by the news, and added, bizarrely, "Then I don't have to look at the classified information, no matter how titillating it may be."

The most important comments, however, were made by David Raskin, firstly when he said that that the government was not planning to use any statements made by Ghailani in the secret prisons, and, secondly, when he explained that the evidence used in the case against Ghailani would "not be very different" from that used when four of his alleged co-conspirators were put through the federal court system in 2001, and, after being convicted in May 2001, were sentenced to life without parole in October 2001, just six weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

On that occasion, of course, there was no need for lawyers to propose visits to torture prisons, because the men in question had, sensibly, undergone interrogations in the United States, at the hands of skilled agents, that did not involve the use of secret prisons, that did not involve the use of torture, and that did not involve the current administration using the relatively clean case of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani to test whether the federal court system can deliver justice -- and be seen to deliver justice -- in the cases of other prisoners who also lost years of their lives in an illegal and counter-productive pursuit of "actionable intelligence."

Like most of the Bush administration's "War on Terror" policies, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani's five years as a "high-value detainee" were part of a project that was conceived in haste and arrogance, with no thought of what would eventually happen to these dehumanized "ghost prisoners" -- America's Disappeared -- when, as was inevitable, they were one day brought back into the real world.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press), and maintains a blog here.

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