Ghailani Trial and Sentence Affirms US Federal Court System

Before Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1998 bombings of two US Embassies in East Africa today, 11 victims of those bombings were allowed to speak to the packed courtroom.

Each one stood at the front of the gallery, speaking into a microphone facing the judge. Each had a horrible story to tell -- about losing a husband or wife in the bombing, or losing a child or brother or sister. Many had been in the bombings themselves, and described not only the deafening blasts and sight of dismembered body parts that still haunt their nightmares, but also their own continuing psychological trauma and physical disabilities that persist today.

The federal sentencing guidelines allow victims to address the court at a sentencing hearing.

But in addition to noting their own pain and anger, victims also praised the federal court judge, Lewis Kaplan, and the United States justice system for bringing Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani to justice in a public courtroom following a fair trial.

Susan Hirsch, whose husband, Abduhrahman Abdullah, was killed in the attack in Tanzania, spoke of the important lessons conveyed by the trial -- a point she elaborated upon in a letter submitted earlier to the court.

This trial, and the first embassy bombings trial, she said, "offered a lesson about our nation's ability to succeed in using civilian courts to bring those accused of terror crimes to justice in a manner that is fair and safe. I am so grateful that Ghailani was found guilty in a court whose jurisdiction and procedures are, in contrast to those of the Military Commissions, recognizable, accessible, and less vulnerable to legal challenges," she added.

Although she didn't mention it, military commissions also do not have sentencing guidelines, so there is no mandatory minimum sentence for conspiracy or any of the other counts Ghailani was charged with. As a result, most sentences in military commissions have been far more lenient than those in federal court. Since September 11, there have been only five convictions in military commissions, as compared to more than 400 on terrorism-related offenses in federal courts.

"Finally, this trial will offer a lesson about American resilience," said Hirsch in her letter. "The trial symbolizes our commitment to justice for those who carry out grave crimes and attests that our justice system can survive terror attacks and misuse and that we should continue to have faith in it."

Although critics of federal court trials earlier criticized some of Judge Kaplan's rulings for excluding evidence derived by torture, Hirsch commended the judge for not relying on tortured evidence, even at sentencing. "Those responsible for his torture engaged in reprehensible crimes," she said, adding that "I would hope that the decisions of jurists like yourself will work against the repetition of these acts that undermined justice as well as their legacy."

Ghailani's lawyers had asked Judge Kaplan to grant Ghailani a more lenient sentence because he claims he was tortured in CIA custody in a secret overseas prison. But the judge decided that even if he was tortured, "the impact on him pales in comparison to the suffering and the horror he and his confederates caused," and refused to take that into account in the sentence.

Still, Hirsch noted that Ghailani's mistreatment, and the fact that the government waited six years to prosecute the case, probably damaged the government's case and may well be the reason that the jury acquitted him on most of the charges.

The jury's acquittal of Ghailani on more than 280 counts of murder and conspiracy in connection with the bombing has led some critics to question the government's judgment in bringing the case in federal court at all. But the victims who spoke today instead praised the U.S. government for finally bringing the case to court.

In Hirsch's view, the problem was not bringing the case to trial, but delaying the commission of justice:

"I cannot help but believe that the quality of the evidence against Ghailani deteriorated during the years in which the U.S. government detained him but failed to bring him to justice, and thereby affected the jury's verdict. My greatest frustration with respect to this case is that justice may have been compromised by the long delay."