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Gitmo Detainee Cleared of All but One Charge

 

Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Ahmed Ghailani was found not guilty on all but one charge Wednesday by a civilian jury in New York, in a case with ramifications for President Obama's policy toward Guantanamo and civilian trials for terror suspects.

Ghailani was acquitted in federal court on more than 280 charges in connection with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, including one murder count for each of the 224 people killed. He was found guilty for only one charge, conspiracy to destroy government buildings.

Ghailani faces a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison and a possible life sentence. He will remain in custody and sentencing will take place on Jan. 25, 2011.

The acquittal is seen as a major blow to the U.S. government, as Ghailani was the first former Gitmo detainee to be tried in a civilian courtroom. The case had been viewed as a possible test case for President Barack Obama administration's aim of putting other terror detainees -- including self-professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- on trial on U.S. soil.

The anonymous federal jury deliberated over seven days, with a juror writing a note to the judge saying she felt threatened by other jurors.

Prosecutors had branded Ghailani a cold-blooded terrorist. The defense portrayed him as a clueless errand boy, exploited by senior Al Qaeda operatives and framed by evidence from contaminated crime scenes.

The judge had earlier decided that a star witness would not be allowed to testify because the witness was identified while Ghailani was held at a secret CIA camp that used harsh interrogation techniques. It is unknown what effect this witness would have had on the case.

Prosecutors had alleged Ghailani helped an Al Qaeda cell buy a truck and components for explosives used in a suicide bombing in his native Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998. The attack in Dar es Salaam and a nearly simultaneous bombing in Nairobi, Kenya, killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

The day before the bombings, Ghailani boarded a one-way flight to Pakistan under an alias, prosecutors said. While on the run, he spent time in Afghanistan as a cook and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and later as a document forger for Al Qaeda, authorities said.

He was captured in 2004 in Pakistan and held by the CIA at a secret overseas camp. In 2006, he was transferred to Guantanamo and held until the decision last year to bring him to New York.

Despite losing its key witness, the government was given broad latitude to reference Al Qaeda and bin Laden. It did -- again and again.

"This is Ahmed Ghailani. This is Al Qaeda. This is a terrorist. This is a killer," Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Chernoff said in closing arguments.

The jury heard a former Al Qaeda member who has cooperated with the government describe how bin Laden took the group in a more radical direction with a 1998 fatwa, or religious edict, against Americans.

Bin Laden accused the United States of killing innocent women and children in the Middle East and decided "we should do the same," L'Houssaine Kherchtou said on the witness stand.

A prosecutor read aloud the fatwa, which called on Muslims to rise up and "kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they can find it."

Other witnesses described how Ghailani bought gas tanks used in the truck bomb with cash supplied by the terror group, how the FBI found a blasting cap stashed in his room at a cell hideout and how he lied to family members about his escape, telling them he was going to Yemen to start a new life.

The defense never contested that Ghailani knew some of the plotters. But it claimed he was in the dark about their sinister intentions.

"Call him a fall guy. Call him a pawn," lawyer Peter Quijano said in his closing argument. "But don't call him guilty."

Quijano argued the investigation in Africa was too chaotic to produce reliable evidence. He said local authorities and the FBI "trampled all over" unsecured crime scenes during searches in Tanzania

The Associated Press contributed to this report.