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Former Gitmo Prisoner's Case Comes Down to What He Knew and When He Knew It

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Lawyers made opening statements Tuesday as the trial began in earnest for the first former Guantanamo detainee transferred to U.S. soil. While the government portrayed the slight, baby-faced 36-year-old as a vicious al Qaeda murderer who helped plan two US embassy bombings that killed 224 people, the defense told a very different story. Although not contesting much of the evidence the government plans to present --- about the bombings themselves, its destructiveness and their innocent victims -- defense lawyers argue that Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was a hapless young Tanzanian duped into helping his powerful childhood friends who, unbeknownst to him, were al Qaeda killers.

What's most surprising about the case is that, based on the government's opening arguments, it's not clear whether prosecutors have any direct evidence establishing that Ghailani intended to hurt anyone, or even knew that the items he purchased in Tanzania were going to be used as a bomb. That knowledge is a critical element of the charges against him -- particularly the multiple murder charges.

From the opening statements, it seems that the government will try to piece together the circumstances of the bombings and evidence that Ghailani paid cash for the two-and-a-half ton white Nissan truck and tanks filled with oxygen and acetylene, all of which were used to create a massive bomb detonated outside the U.S. embassy in Tanzania in 1998, to argue that Ghailani was in on the plot from the beginning, which prosecutors link back to Osama bin Laden. Ghailani purchased the truck and gas tanks, prosecutor Nicholas Lewin told the federal court jury in downtown Manhattan today, "because he and his associates were committed to Al Qaeda's overriding goal: killing Americans."

Defense lawyers, on the other hand, are presenting Ghailani as an innocent "creature of his surroundings," as Steve Zissou, one of his lawyers, put it today. Ghailani, his lawyers argue, was a simple young man struggling to earn a living, who acted as an errand boy and middle man, buying a truck and gas tanks in the chaotic open markets of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, "where you could literally buy anything and sell anything." Ghailani didn't know what his friends wanted these things for, Zissou argued, and therefore cannot be held responsible for his friends' actions. Ghailani is "not just presumed innocent," but "truly innocent."

The government's first witness, the acting U.S. Ambassador in Tanzania at the time of the bombing, opened the government's case with a description of the day of the bombing and the explosion itself. Whether the government will be able to actually demonstrate that Ghailani knowingly helped plot and carry out the bombing remains an open question.

What's clear from the trial's opening, however, is that lawyers on both sides seem strong, the judge appears to be addressing the issues even-handedly, and, 12 years after the East Africa embassy bombings, the stage is finally set to give Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani a fair trial.