NEW YORK — The first Guantanamo detainee to have a U.S. civilian trial was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday for his role in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, a case that nearly unraveled when the defendant was convicted on just one of more than 280 counts.
Ahmed Ghailani, who served as Osama bin Laden's cook and bodyguard after the bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, sought leniency, claiming he was tortured at a secret CIA detention site after his arrest in Pakistan seven years ago. But U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan imposed the maximum sentence, saying that whatever Ghailani suffered "pales in comparison to the suffering and the horror" caused by the nearly simultaneous attacks, which killed 224 people and injured thousands more.
Ghailani, 36, was convicted last month of conspiring to destroy government buildings. Prosecutors said he bought a truck used in the Tanzanian attack, stored and concealed detonators, sheltered an al-Qaida fugitive and delivered hundreds of pounds of TNT to the African terror cell.
His trial at a lower Manhattan courthouse had been viewed as a test for President Barack Obama's aim of putting other terror detainees — including self-professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed — on trial on U.S. soil. Obama's hands are tied, however — at least in the short term — because lawmakers have prohibited the Pentagon from transferring detainees to the United States.
The prosecution of Ghailani is considered a success by supporters of civilian trials for detainees at the prison on the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Critics, however, say it showed that such trials are too risky.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the sentencing "shows yet again the strength of the American justice system in holding terrorists accountable for their actions."
But House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called the case "a near disaster" because Ghailani was only convicted of one of 285 counts.