NEW YORK CITY — The only Guantanamo Bay detainee to be prosecuted in civilian courts told a judge Thursday that he will waive his right to attend his September trial on terrorism charges if strip search procedures are not changed.
Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, charged in the August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, told U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan of his plans to boycott his trial during a hearing in Manhattan.
The judge has yet to rule on a defense request that he force the Bureau of Prisons to alter its strip search policy because the searches trigger scary memories for Ghailani of his treatment during interrogations at a secret CIA-run camp abroad after his July 2004 arrest.
If the judge lets the strip searches proceed as they occur now, “I would not want to come here,” Ghailani said. “I want to waive my right.”
Ghailani, sitting at the defense table in his blue prison uniform, answered a series of questions from the judge that were meant to determine whether he was competent to waive his right to attend his trial.
Ghailani was brought to court against his wishes so Kaplan could tell him that his defense against terrorism charges might be harmed if he does not attend his trial. He said he understands that.
The judge said that if Ghailani skips his trial, he will still be required to attend the trial at least one time and might be brought to court other days if the judge chooses to verify for himself that Ghailani still declines to participate.
Anna Nicole Sideris, a paralegal for the defense, testified at the hearing that Ghailani has told her repeatedly that he wants to be at his court hearings and trial, but not if he must submit to strip searches requiring him to squat and expose his private areas.
“He just wants peace, even if it means spending the rest of his life in jail. He doesn’t want to go through this,” she said. “He’s terrified of going through it.”
She said the strip searches were “something that makes him extremely upset and it’s traumatizing.”
Ghailani, smiling slightly at times, appeared calm in court throughout the proceeding, which lasted more than an hour.
The judge said he will rule on the request after hearing testimony later this month from psychologist Katherine A. Porterfield. Defense lawyers say Porterfield concluded Ghailani suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. She could not attend Thursday’s hearing because she was at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for another proceeding.
“Nudity serves as a profound ‘trigger’ for Mr. Ghailani, thrusting him into vivid memories of the interrogation process he endured, as well as a real fear that further maltreatment will occur in the present setting,” she wrote in a defense submission.
Ghailani, accused of being a bomb-maker, document forger and aide to Osama bin Laden, was brought to New York in spring 2009 to await trial in connection with al-Qaida bombings that killed 224 people — including 12 Americans — at the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
Ghailani, who has pleaded not guilty, has denied knowing that the TNT and oxygen tanks he delivered would be used to make a bomb. He also has denied buying a vehicle used in one of the attacks, saying he could not drive.
A defense lawyer has said Ghailani was subjected after his arrest to enhanced interrogation for 14 hours over five days.
Before scaling back its enhanced interrogation program, the CIA used 10 harsh methods, including waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning.