The first suspect transferred from Guantanamo military prison to stand a civilian trial was acquitted late Wednesday of nearly every charge that he helped with terrorist attacks on two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people in 1998.
After a week of deliberation, a federal jury convicted Ahmed Ghailani, 36, a Tanzanian from Zanzibar of one count of conspiracy and acquitted him of all more than 280 other counts, including murder and murder conspiracy.
The verdict deals a setback to President Obama’s plans for trying terrorism suspects on U.S. soil and marks a rare defeat for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York, which has a near perfect record in prosecuting terrorism cases.
Prosecutors branded Ghailani a cold-blooded terrorist, but the defense portrayed him as a clueless errand boy, exploited by senior al-Qaida operatives and framed by evidence from contaminated crime scenes.
Ghailani was convicted of one count of conspiracy to destroy U.S. property. He faces a minimum of 20 years and a maximum of life in prison at sentencing on Jan. 25.
Adam Klasfeld*, a reporter for Courthouse News Service, was in the courtroom and spoke with The Rundown shortly after the verdict was read.
“At first, everyone was tense,” Klasfeld said. “People were not expecting this.”
The jurors only looked at the judge and did not make eye contact with Ghailani or those gathered in the room, Klasfeld said. “A hushed silence fell on the reading of the verdict. A string of ‘not guiltys’ were read until count five, which was conspiracy to destroy government buildings and property.”
Despite the charge he was convicted on still carrying the potential for life in prison, Klasfeld said the defense team seemed very positive after the rest of the charges were read as not guilty. Ghailani hugged his lawyer before guards handcuffed him and took him out of the room.
The judge told the jurors, “you have the right to be proud of your service in this case,” and added, “your nation is better for people like you,” according to Klasfeld. The jurors were also not immediately talking to the press and were cautioned to be careful about giving out personal information.
When Ghailani was transferred to New York last year to stand trial, Jim Lehrer spoke with Benjamin Weiser of The New York Times for some background on the case and the controversial venue for prosecution:
George Griffin, Mike Melia, Dave Gustafson, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
- An earlier version of this post had the incorrect first name.