MANHATTAN (CN) – Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in civilian court, was acquitted Wednesday of all but one of the 285 counts against him in the bombings of two U.S. Embassies in Africa. Ghailani was cleared of responsibility for any deaths. He was convicted of conspiring to destroy U.S. buildings, which carries a mandatory sentence of 20 years to life imprisonment.
The 1998 bombings, for which an al-Qaida front group claimed responsibility, killed more than 200 people and injured thousands.
Although he said he could not comment on the substance of the verdict, U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan told jurors, “Your nation is a better place because of you and people like you. … You deserve a lot of credit. You have demonstrated that American justice can be delivered calmly, deliberately and fairly by ordinary people who are not beholden to anybody.”
His sentiments echoed those of defense attorney Peter Quijano, who asked jurors to review the evidence dispassionately during his closing summation: “You must be strong and guard against this natural fear and desire for retribution. For all al-Qaida has done to us and what they wish to do to us. Do so and you honor your oaths as jurors, and you prove to the world why there is no country on earth like ours.”
Before the verdict was read, jurors made no eye contact with Ghailani, as they entered the courtroom and walked to the jurors’ box. Their gazes pointed at the judge, as the foreman handed the deputy the envelope for him to inspect.
Stillness fell upon the courtroom as Kaplan calmly inspected its pages, and defense attorneys appeared tense, as he handed the document back to the lead juror to read the verdict.
Ghailani and his defense team noticeably relaxed with each recitation of “Not Guilty.”
Though the charge of which Ghailani is convicted carries a potential life sentence, Ghailani appeared relieved and jubilant, as he hugged his defense attorney Peter Quijano, before a U.S. Marshal escorted him out of the court.
“The significance of this [verdict] is that it is the first time the presumption of innocence has characterized a terrorism trial in America,” said civil libertarian Karen Greenberg, founder of The Center on Law and Security at NYU and author of “The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days.”
Ghailani faced multiple counts of murder and conspiracy, for the bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya on Aug. 7, 1998.
After the jury delivered its verdict, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement: “Ahmed Ghailani was today convicted of conspiring in the 1998 destruction of the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, causing death as a result. He will face, and we will seek, the maximum sentence of life without parole when he is sentenced in January.”
Sentencing is set for Jan. 25, 2011.