NEW YORK – Jurors in the trial of a Guantanamo detainee accused of supplying explosives for the deadly bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa can see Osama bin Laden's orders more than a decade ago that his followers kill Americans, a judge ruled Friday.
U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan made the ruling at a hearing in Manhattan for Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to face trial in a civilian court. Several hours later, he delayed a resumption of the trial and the possibility of opening statements until Wednesday. Jury selection began this week.
Kaplan said the delay was necessary to decide whether a key prosecution witness can testify and to give prosecutors time to appeal if he rules against letting the witness take the stand.
Ghailani is charged with conspiracy in the deadly bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. Ghailani is accused of being a bomb maker and aide to bin Laden.
Prosecutors asked last week that they be allowed to show jurors bin Laden's words, including a television interview in which he said U.S. civilians were targets of his holy war against the West. They cite two printed statements he made to a London-based Arabic-language newspaper and two television interviews bin Laden gave to U.S. networks.
The government said bin Laden from 1996 through 1998 made anti-American statements meant to enhance al-Qaida's terrorist image, communicate its goals to its far-flung members and help it recruit new supporters.
The judge said his ruling in the government's favor was not a close call.
"The indictment in this case charges a conspiracy led by bin Laden to kill Americans. As to relevance, it seems to me that the exhibits are proof of a charged element of the indictment. I can't see how anything could be more relevant than that," he said.
Defense lawyers had argued that the exhibits were "overwhelmingly prejudicial" and that no evidence would be offered at trial to directly establish that Ghailani knew of bin Laden's orders or of a plot to destroy U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. In all, 224 people were killed in the Aug. 7, 1998 attacks, including 12 Americans.
Prosecutors had said in court papers that bin Laden's words were important evidence. The statements were allowed at the 2001 trial of four other defendants in the embassy bombings. All four were convicted and are serving life sentences.
"To establish that the defendant intended to kill Americans in particular, it is relevant that the leader of the conspiracy was emphatically and repeatedly directing his followers to, in fact, kill Americans," prosecutors wrote.
The judge said Friday that he wants to rule before the Ghailani jury is sworn in whether the government can call a witness who will testify that he sold Ghailani explosives prior to the bombings. The witness might be excluded from the trial because the government learned about him as a result of harsh questioning Ghailani underwent at a CIA camp overseas after his 2004 arrest. Ghailani was moved in 2006 to Guantanamo and was brought to New York for trial last year.
Prosecutors have said they considered the witness their most important and asked in a letter to the court Thursday that the trial be delayed until the judge rules.
The judge said that if he rules against the government, he will delay swearing in jurors so that prosecutors have a chance to immediately appeal his decision.