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Guantanamo Detainee Transferred to New York Court

June 9, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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A Guantanamo detainee arrived in New York Tuesday and was arraigned in federal court on charges stemming from the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. A New York Times reporter provides an update.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a Guantanamo detainee is brought to the United States.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani arrived in New York City today. He’d been held at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2006. This afternoon, he was arraigned in federal court on charges stemming from the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.

In Washington today, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said his trial was long overdue.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House Press Secretary: This is somebody, to keep in mind, who’s been indicted with 286 separate counts relating to the death of 224 people, 12 Americans, in a crime that was committed 11 years ago. I think that the victims, the families of the victims that were involved have waited far too long for justice to be served.

JIM LEHRER: Here to tell us more is Benjamin Weiser of the New York Times.

Ben Weiser, welcome.

BENJAMIN WEISER, The New York Times: Hi, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Hi. You were at the courtroom for the arraignment today. What happened? Tell us what happened.

BENJAMIN WEISER: It was a packed courtroom. The defendant came in. He seemed very comfortable and relaxed. He smiled as he spoke quietly with his lawyer before the hearing began.

It was a very brief hearing, maybe 15 minutes. He entered a plea of not guilty to the indictment and was told that he’d be back in court next week for another hearing.

Defendant's background

JIM LEHRER: Tell us about this guy, Ghailani, his age, where he comes from, how he got where he is.

BENJAMIN WEISER: Ghailani is a Tanzanian believed to be in his mid-30s. He was involved, according to the government, in the 1998 bombing of the embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and has been charged in the conspiracy that charged a number of al-Qaida operatives with bombing embassies both in Kenya and Tanzania, killing, as you heard, more than 200 people and wounding thousands.

He was a fugitive at the time of his indictment in December 1998. And until 2004, the government says, worked his way through al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan, essentially rose to become a bodyguard and a cook for Osama bin Laden, and then was captured in 2004, held in the secret prisons run by the CIA for a couple of years, and then, in 2006, transferred to Gitmo.

JIM LEHRER: Is there anything known about how he was caught finally?

BENJAMIN WEISER: I don't have details on that. He has said in his own document filed in the federal court that he was first held in secret incarceration, as he put it, and then also underlined, as he put it again, enhanced interrogation techniques.

He has not been more specific, and we don't know more about that right now. But this will undoubtedly be part of the things that the defense will have to investigate in the case and see how it will affect his prosecution.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what is known about the evidence against him, in terms of what exactly he did that was connected to the 1998 bombings?

BENJAMIN WEISER: In the '98 bombings, he was not as big a player as some of the others. He has been accused of helping to get a truck and helping to get explosives and other logistical things that were done very specific to the Tanzanian attack.

But like so many of the operatives involved, he was back and forth from Kenya to Tanzania. He's been accused in the larger conspiracy. And, of course, four people were tried in Manhattan in 2001 in that attack and were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Transfer from Guantanamo

JIM LEHRER: Now, what is known about the details, about the decision that was made by the government of the United States to move him from Guantanamo and bring him to New York as they have done for the trial? This was the first Guantanamo detainee to be so moved. What happened?

BENJAMIN WEISER: That's right. Well, you know, President Obama said last month in the case of Ghailani, when he announced as part of his plan to close Guantanamo, that he would try to send as many detainees as feasible to be tried in the federal courts. And, indeed, Ghailani is the first to be sent, and he was brought here to New York.

Ghailani is one of the few detainees at Guantanamo who actually had pre-existing charges. This indictment, of course, pre-exists the creation of Guantanamo. It pre-exists 9/11.

Another defendant in the same position is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He was also indicted in New York in the mid-1990s in another terrorism case. But Obama said that it was time that justice got done in this case.

JIM LEHRER: So what is known about the evidence against him? In other words, from your reading of the thing, does the government have a real case against him?

BENJAMIN WEISER: Well, the evidence is -- you know, the government's actually been through this once before. They've tried the embassy bombings case, as I mentioned...

JIM LEHRER: With the other defendants, right.

BENJAMIN WEISER: ... 54 people, that's right. But the conspiracy case is largely based on both government witnesses who are, indeed, al-Qaida operatives who've turned government witness and who can place this defendant, presumably and others, the government would say, in the conspiracy, what the government has called a global terrorism conspiracy to kill Americans anywhere in the world. Of course, that's what their words were, again, before 9/11.

The precise details of the evidence is not known at this point. But if history is a lesson, the government will have a pretty strong case, as they've shown in the earlier embassy trial.

JIM LEHRER: I read somewhere today -- correct me if I misread it, Ben -- that he told somebody, Ghailani did, that, yes, he did help acquire some of the explosives in the truck and all of that, but he didn't realize it was going to be used to bomb these embassies. Did I get that right?

BENJAMIN WEISER: That's right, Jim. In a commission appearance -- not a commission trial, but in a commission appearance a few years back at Guantanamo -- he actually made a statement. And he seemed very apologetic in the statement, you know, according to a transcript.

He said that he had, indeed, assisted others who planned and carried out the Tanzanian attack, but he claimed that he was kept in the dark about the whole thing and was unaware of what the plan was. He also apologized in this statement to those who were -- to the families of those who were killed or injured.

JIM LEHRER: So you say he's in his 30s now, so this was 11 years ago. He was in his 20s then. He must have been a beginning al-Qaida operative, correct? Is that correct?

BENJAMIN WEISER: That's right, in his early 20s, and that's the pattern. You know, we saw in the embassy case the young men who, for example, were involved in literally helping carry out the suicide attacks of both embassies were very young. Some were very educated; some were not. But that was the pattern of how they collected operatives to use in those attacks.

Finding a lawyer

JIM LEHRER: Now, he pleaded not guilty today. And so what happens next?

BENJAMIN WEISER: One question and one interesting question is, who will represent him? There's a civilian lawyer that will presumably be appointed to represent him.

The two lawyers who have a very longstanding relationship with him from representing him at Guantanamo have also made a special request through their superiors in the Department of Defense to assist in the representation in New York. We've not seen that before that I can think of. And, of course, we haven't seen a case like this before, either.

The government has asked that a civilian lawyer who's presently on the case be removed. There's quite a dispute right now as to who will represent him.

But one way or the other, he's going to get at least one lawyer. And if the government seeks the death penalty, which they could do in this case, he would undoubtedly be given additional defense resources.

JIM LEHRER: Now, those earlier defense lawyers, those are U.S. officers in the U.S. military, right?

BENJAMIN WEISER: That's exactly right. And they showed up in court today and introduced themselves to the judge, and the judge thanked them. Judge Preska thanked them and said anything they could do to help in the transition from military to civilian court would be greatly appreciated. It was quite an interesting moment.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes, sounds that way. Ben Weiser, thank you very much.