Barack Obama's plans to try accused terrorists in civilian courts experienced a major setback last night when the first former Guantánamo detainee to be tried in one was convicted on just one of 285 charges over the 1998 attack on US embassies in East Africa which killed 224 people.
Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a 36-year-old Tanzanian, was found guilty of conspiracy to destroy US government buildings and property for helping an al-Qaida cell to buy a lorry and bomb parts in the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Dar-es-Salaam. But a US federal jury acquitted him of all the more serious charges of murder and conspiracy.
Ghailani faces 20 years to life in prison when he is sentenced in January. He had already been told that even if he was acquitted on all counts he would not be freed so long as America remains "at war" with al-Qaida.
However, the verdict is an embarrassment for US prosecutors who maintained that Ghailani played an important logistical role in the attacks but were unable to persuade a jury which showed signs of serious disagreement during deliberations, with one juror asking to be excused because of differences with other jurors. The judge, Lewis Kaplan, refused.
The failure to convict Ghailani on the more serious charges is also a blow to Obama's attempts to persuade a sceptical Congress and security establishment that civilian trials are better than the widely condemned military tribunals held at the Guantánamo detention centre. The trial was considered a test run.
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