MANHATTAN (CN) – Former Guantanamo detainee Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison without possibility of parole and ordered to pay $33 million in restitution for his role in the bombings of two U.S. Embassies in East Africa on Aug. 7, 1998.
“For every second of pain and discomfort he suffered, he brought a thousand-fold more upon the victims,” U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan said at the hearing. “Today is about justice, not only for Mr. Ghailani, but for the victims of his crimes.”
During a hearing of more than two hours, 11 victims from three countries cried, often literally, for justice and shared intimate details of their loved ones and their injuries.
A prosecutor called Ghailani, a former Tanzanian merchant, the “evil” associate of al-Qaida and an “enemy of society.”
Ghailani’s defense attorney, Peter Quijano, continued to proclaim his client’s innocence, calling the 36-year-old “unique” among Guantanamo prisoners and among men. Quijano was joined in the courtroom by two high-ranking soldiers, still on active duty, who once represented Ghailani at Guantanamo and still maintain their former client was duped.
Throughout it all, Ghailani, whom a federal jury convicted in November of one conspiracy charge, did not say a word.
The jury selected the sole charge – conspiracy to destroy U.S. property, causing death – out of the 285 leveled against Ghailani, acquitting the man of more than 200 murder counts and other conspiracy charges.
Prosecutor Michael Farbiarz told the judge that the crime of which Ghailani was convicted was so horrific that he “should take away his freedom and take it away forever.”
On Tuesday, the judge did just that, imposing a jail term that Ghailani could not outlive and a fine he cannot pay.
Kaplan rejected the defense’s pleas for clemency. They had requested a light sentence on the grounds that Ghailani suffered “humiliating torture” at the hands of the U.S. government.
Kaplan countered that Ghailani could pursue actions about the alleged torture at another time.
On Aug. 7, 1998, 224 people were killed and thousands injured when bombs took out two U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. On behalf of those victims, 11 survivors, widows and other family members of the victims spoke at the hearing. They shared stories of their loved ones, talked about coping with post-traumatic stress, and uniformly asked for harsh sentences.
The first victim, Sue Bartley, fought through her tears as she began.
“August 7, 1998 is a day that I will never for get,” Bartley said. “My husband and my son were both killed on that tragic day.” Her daughter Edith became an advocate for the victims killed in the attacks and urged the court to continue pursuing any individual tied to the embassy bombings.
Dr. Susan F. Hirsch, an American citizen, spoke about losing her husband, who was a Kenyan citizen, “guided by Islamic ideals of mercy and respect for life.”
Addressing conservative critics of civilian trials, Hirsch said that the Ghailani’s trial “offers a symbol of American resilience” and had greater legitimacy and a transparency than a military tribunal.
Although she disagreed with the jury’s acquittals, she said that they rebuked the torture that made evidence inadmissible, not civilian trials in general.
Howard C. Kavaler called himself one of the “lucky ones” who escaped the bombing; his late wife, however, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Kenyan victim Elizabeth Maloba recalled seeing killed and maimed victims near the U.S. Embassy, “Others without heads. Others burned without recognition. Others without legs. … As I sleep, I see them. As I walk, I see them.”
Justina L. Mdobilu said that she was speaking as the only Tanzanian victim in attendance. The rest wanted to put the incident behind them, she said, citing a Chinese proverb, “To be angry is to let others’ mistakes punish yourself.” Mdobilu was eight months pregnant when she survived the attack. She said her child was born “healthy and smart.”
Several victims spoke of their struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. Mdobilu, an employee of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania, said that she had to “run and hide” during a drill at work, even though it was not an actual emergency. Another victim spoke about falling after hallucinating of a “false step” while walking a staircase.
Two African victims spoke about the shame associated with their injuries and their losses in the face of local taboos. One woman spoke about the difficulty of being seen as a widow, and a man talked candidly about how impotence affected his marriage since the attacks.
Another man, James Ndeda of Kenya, called for one year in prison for each of the victims of the attacks, more than 200 in total. He added that in Africa, if a man dies in prison, a chain is wrapped around his coffin until his sentence is served.
After they spoke, Ghailani’s attorney, Quijano, tried to defend his client.
“Mr. Ghailani was tortured,” Quijano said. “Whatever euphemism is used, standard interrogation techniques, we submit it is torture in violation of Geneva Conventions. We have the Constitution. We have laws that govern.”
In a recently unsealed letter from the defense containing several pages that are blackened out, non-redacted portions generally describe “enhanced interrogation techniques” that may have been used for Ghailani in detail.
The letter includes a list of “standard measures,” such as shaving, stripping, diapering, hooding, sleep deprivation and face slapping. Other “enhanced measures” include the use of white noise, light and temperature changes, cramped confinement, and stress positions.
The defense also argued that Ghailani “saved lives” by providing the U.S. with critical information.
“We submit that Mr. Ghailani provided the U.S. government with information and intelligence that was actionable and acted upon by our government,” Quijano said. “It was information and intelligence that saved lives, and I suggest that is not hyperbole. This unique and unprecedented factor should be considered by this court.”
As he had argued throughout the trial, Quijano said that Ghailani was an unwitting dupe into the Embassy bombings, who wept for its victims after he realized what had happened.
“The person you have sentenced is not who the government has depicted,” Quijano said, adding that Ghailani was “unique among the men held at Gitmo, and unique among men generally. Someone lured into a world that he could not escape. Someone who had wept for the deaths. Someone who harbors no hatred to the United States.”
Quijano then read a letter from Ghailani’s former lead defense counsel in Guantanamo, Col. Jeffrey P. Colwell of the U.S. Marine Corps.
“In my opinion, based upon my knowledge and contacts with both him and his family, Mr. Ghailani is not a radical jihadist, a terrorist, or a danger to society,” Colwell wrote.
Lt. Col. Richard Reiter also wrote a letter to the sentencing judge on Ghailani’s behalf, Quijano said, noting that they risked their names and reputations in stepping forward.
When asked if he had anything to add to his attorney’s remarks, Ghailani simply shook his head.
“The information that he provided, he did not learn in a seminar, he did not learn in a book, he learned by doing,” prosecutor Michael Farbiarz replied. “It is an insult to the truth. It is an insult to common sense. … He is a man who cannot muster a moment of contrition.”
Kaplan was also unmoved by the claims of Ghailani’s innocence.
“I am not persuaded that Mr. Ghailani is the harmless and innocent person that has been put forward – not at all,” Kaplan said, moments before announcing his sentence.
The judge added that Ghailani’s attorneys, in defending him, served in the “patriot” tradition of John Adams, the American Founding Father who defended British soldiers after the Boston Massacre.
As they had throughout the trial, Ghailani’s attorneys comforted him during the reading of the sentence. They hugged as a U.S. Marshal handcuffed Ghailani and led him out of the courtroom.