The Pentagon announced Monday that it will seek to try a Tanzanian man for war crimes in the 1998 East African embassy bombings — a decade after he was indicted in New York in the case and four years after he was taken into U.S. custody.
The decision to bring Ahmad Ghailani before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, rather than before a civilian federal court was immediately denounced by the Center for Constitutional Rights, whose lawyers represent dozens of the 280 or so detainees at Guantánamo.
"The only reason the government is now militarizing these criminal acts is to hide what the CIA is doing in its interrogation program behind the secrecy of the commissions," it said in a statement.
The group noted that other bombing cases have been successfully prosecuted in criminal courts in the United States, Spain and the United Kingdom, and ended with convictions and life sentences.
Ghailani was captured in 2004 in Pakistan and was held by the CIA in secret detention until September 2006, when he was surrendered to U.S. military authorities and transfered to Guantanamo. There has been no known efforts by civilian Justice Department attorneys to have him transferred to New York to stand trial.
But the Pentagon's military commissions legal advisor, Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, who announced the charges on Monday, said in an interview that prosecutions at Guantanamo and in New York are not mutually exclusive.
"The president of the United States made a determination that the alleged war crimes that are committed in connection with the global war on terror are going to be tried at the commissions," he said.
"If the Southern District of New York wants to proceed with a trial process, they can do that."
Spokesmen for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia declined to comment, as did the Department of Justice in Washington.
Ghailani, who is in his 30s, is accused of conspiracy, murder and providing material support for terror in the Aug. 7, 1998 suicide attack at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. If convicted before the military commission, he could receive the death penalty.
That day, suicide bombers simultaneously struck at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, a coordinated precursor of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Eleven Africans were killed and about 80 others were wounded in Dar as Salaam, the Tanzanian capital.
The five-foot-four-inch Ghailani, who was born on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, addressed the charges during a hearing in Guantanamo, according to a Pentagon transcript released later.
Ghailani rejected claims that he had conducted surveillance on the U.S. Embassy before the attack.
But he said that he did help deliver explosives that turned a Nissan pickup into a deadly truck bomb, though he said he thought the explosives were bound for a diamond mine in Somalia, as well as a "training camp'' in Somalia. He did not elaborate.
Unlike other so-called high value detainees who'd been held in CIA custody, Ghailani made no allegation that he'd been tortured or abused while in custody.
No military commission case has been fully prosecuted. Aus- tralian foot soldier David Hicks pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorism a year ago, served a nine-month sentence in Australia and is now free.
The charges against Ghailani still must be approved by a Bush administration appointee, Susan Crawford. If the charges are approved, the Pentagon chief defense would assign him a military defense to help him prepare for trial.
But whether he'll face a military commission trial will be held at Guantanamo is uncertain.
Lawyers familiar with military legal procedures have said it is unlikely capital cases such as his can be prepared before the end of the Bush administration, and none of the presidential candidates have shown much interest in continuing the process at Guantanamo.
Hillary Clinton has said she'll seek to have accused terrorists tried in civilian courts. Barrack Obama, while less specific, also has questioned the military commissions system. Republican John McCain has pledged to close Guantanamo and move any military commissions to the United States.