WASHINGTON — The Obama administration pressed ahead Tuesday with plans to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, flying a detainee to New York to face federal trial despite bipartisan opposition in Congress to bringing such prisoners to the United States.
The transfer of Ahmed Ghailani to face capital charges in the 1998 East Africa bombings marked the first time a detainee who is not an American citizen has been brought from the military prison in Cuba to the United States. Ghailani, appearing briefly in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Tuesday, pleaded not guilty to multiple charges in connection with the blasts at the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Those attacks killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.
U.S. marshals took custody of Ghailani, a Tanzanian, in Cuba and moved him to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, officials said.
Wearing a blue prison uniform with loose-fitting pants and a shirt but no handcuffs, Ghailani was told that he has a right to legal counsel and that he needs to fill out financial forms if he wants a court-appointed lawyer. His current civilian lawyer, Scott Fenstermaker, said he was withdrawing his pro bono representation. Officials said Fenstermaker could be tapped as the court-appointed attorney under the new system.
Asked by the judge how he wished to plead, Ghailani answered in English, "Not guilty." When the judge asked whether he understood his right to counsel, he replied, "I understand."
Ghailani faces multiple charges and, if convicted in the embassy bombings, could face the death penalty.
Ghailani was indicted in New York before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, captured three years later and held in a secret CIA prison overseas before being placed in Guantanamo in 2006. Four of his named co-conspirators have already been tried and convicted and are serving life sentences in a super-maximum security prison in Colorado.
The decision drew immediate criticism from congressional Republicans. "The administration has made the decision to begin transferring these terrorists to the United States, in spite of the overwhelming opposition of the American people and serious questions from members of Congress of both parties," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
A conference committee of Senate and House members of the defense appropriations subcommittees has been considering language that would restrict the administration's ability to move detainees out of Guantanamo without a comprehensive plan for where to place them. Lawmakers also want assurance that bringing detainees into the United States presents no risk to the country's national security.
Noting a bill, passed 90-6 last month, that banned the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to U.S. prisons, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the president was ignoring the "clear desire of Congress and the American people that these terrorists not be brought to the United States."
McConnell also questioned whether President Barack Obama had authority to move Ghailani under current law, saying "there's an argument that existing law prohibits bringing terrorists into the United States."
But Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., strongly defended Obama's decision, noting that the United States already houses many accused terrorists in prisons around the country.
The Justice Department, sensitive to the criticism from opponents, said in a news release that there are 216 inmates in federal prisons who have connections to international terrorism and that there has never been an escape from the supermax facility in Florence, Colo., where many of them are held.
Thirty-three convicted terrorists are in the Colorado prison, including shoe-bomber Richard Reid and Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Justice Department said.
Federal prosecutors allege that Ghailani obtained bomb materials, scouted the embassy in the Tanzanian capital and escorted an Egyptian suicide bomber from Kenya to Dar es Salaam before the nearly simultaneous blasts in Kenya and Tanzania. The bombing in Tanzania killed 11 people, all Africans, and 213 people were killed in the attack on the embassy in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.
Ghailani, a former Islamic cleric, was captured in July 2004 after a 10-hour shootout in Gujrat, Pakistan. He was taken to a CIA secret prison before he and 13 other "high value" detainees, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, were transferred to Guantanamo in September 2006.
South Pacific nation to resettle detainees
WELLINGTON, New Zealand The remote Pacific island nation of Palau says it has agreed to a U.S. request to temporarily resettle up to 17 Chinese Muslims now held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center on Cuba.
Palau President Johnson Toribiong said his government had "agreed to accommodate the United States of America's request to temporarily resettle in Palau up to 17 ethnic Uighur detainees … subject to periodic review."
U.S. officials asked Toribiong on June 4 to accept the 17 Uighur detainees due to fierce U.S. congressional opposition to releasing them on U.S. soil.
A judge last year ordered the Uighurs released into the United States after the Pentagon determined they were not "enemy combatants." An appeals court halted the order, and they have been in legal limbo since.
Palau, with a population of about 20,000, is an archipelago of eight main islands plus more than 250 islets that is best known for diving and tourism and is some 500 miles east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean.
Two U.S. officials said the United States was prepared to give Palau up to $200 million in development, budget support and other assistance in return for accepting the Uighurs and as part of a mutual defense and cooperation treaty that is due to be renegotiated this year.