Ex-Gitmo Detainee’s Religious-Freedom Case Advances

(CN) — Convicted embassy bomb plotter Ahmed Ghailani made a stride for religious liberty Wednesday inside the nation’s most notorious supermax prison.

The first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in civilian court, Ghailani has been serving a life sentence since 2011 in ADX Florence for his role acquiring materials used in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and his native Tanzania.

The coordinated blasts from al-Qaida killed 224 people and injured thousands, in an attack widely portrayed as a precursor to the terrorist group’s more deadly strike on Sept. 11, 2001.

Known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” ADX Florence is the final destination of most convicted terrorists in the United States, who typically spend 23 hours of every day in 7-by-12-foot cells.

Ghailani challenged the Colorado prison’s refusal to let him participate in Jumu’ah, a Friday group prayer that is a tenet of Islam.

On Wednesday, the Denver-based 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals advanced Ghailani’s argument that this violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Sean Connolly, an attorney for Ghailani at the Colorado firm Zonies Law, celebrated the ruling in a phone interview.

“I’m pleased that the government must now justify denial of his right to engage in his group prayer, as required by his religion,” said Connolly, a former Oklahoma City bombing prosecutor.

Since Ghailani’s capture in Pakistan in 2004, the Tanzanian has been a fateful and complicated figure in what then had been called the U.S. war on terrorism.

The 43-year-old has portrayed himself the earliest days of custody as an unwitting dupe of al-Qaida, denying any knowledge of active plots against the United States.

Those denials, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has now confirmed, led to him to be rendered to a CIA black site and then Guantanamo Bay, where he faced brutal interrogation that his defense attorneys called “humiliating torture.”

While the full extent of Ghailani’s physical and psychological abuse remains under seal, Senate investigators revealed in the “torture report” a little more than two years ago that he suffered hallucinations from sleep deprivation and other so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

In 2009, the same year that then-President Barack Obama shut down the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program, his administration transferred Ghailani from Guantanamo to New York City to face trial.

Facing a jury blocks away from the World Trade Center, Ghailani’s defense echoed his earliest remarks to interrogators. Ghailani’s lead attorney Peter Quijano depicted him as a naive and unsophisticated errand boy from Tanzania’s capital of Dar-es-Salaam, who did not understand the dirty work he was sent to do by hardened terrorists.

Riffing on the Tanzanian’s boyish appearance, Quijano called Ghailani the “Kariokoo kid,” referring to Dar-es-Salaam’s market district.

In a surprising verdict, a New York jury acquitted Ghailani of all but one count of the 285 counts against him.

The guilty count of conspiracy to destroy government property suggested that jurors believed that Ghailani at least vaguely knew the materials he helped purchase would be used for terrorism.

Though the not-guilty counts did not translate into a lighter sentence, Republicans seized upon the mixed verdict to undermine the Obama administration’s plans to try other Guantanamo detainees in U.S. soil.

Ghailani’s subsequent treatment in ADX Florence suggests that prison officials agree he does not rank among their most dangerous inmates.

After his sentencing, Ghailani had been placed under special administrative measures (SAMs), a post-9/11 program putting him under tight watch while severely restricting his contact with the outside world and the news media.

The government let those restrictions expire on June 10, 2015, almost exactly two years ago.

The 10th Circuit’s ruling Wednesday reveals the reasons for that change.

“As the government explained at oral argument, the reason why Mr. Ghailani’s SAMs were eliminated was because the majority of his co-conspirators involved in the embassy bombings ‘have been either captured or killed,’ Mr. Ghailani has exhibited ‘good conduct’ while in prison, ‘his notoriety and his ability to inspire others’ has waned with the passage of time, and he was the only conspirator who expressed remorse for his actions,” U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanie Seymour wrote for the court.

After trial, an interview came to light in which Ghailani expressed his regret to the FBI.

The New York Times reported that Ghailani recalled “putting the pieces of the puzzle together” before the bombing, crying in front of his interrogators as he spoke about the deaths of his countrymen.

The 10th Circuit found that the lifting of Ghailani restrictions weakened the government’s justification for keeping him from group prayer.

“Regardless, the government has admitted that the factual basis for the SAMs, the risk that Mr. Ghailani imposed because of his terrorist activities in 1998, has expired,” the 18-page ruling states. “The government’s argument thus expired with the SAMs and the burden remains on it to affirmatively demonstrate that denying Mr. Ghailani the right to freely exercise his religion by praying Jumu’ah once a week is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest in the least restrictive manner.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Phillips joined Seymour’s opinion, but the third member of the panel — Neil Gorsuch — did not take part in the ruling because of his ascension to the Supreme Court.

U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello, who rejected Ghailani’s complaint over his confinement, will hear the case back on remand.

The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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