NEW YORK CITY — A judge sentenced the first Guantanamo detainee to have a U.S. civilian trial to life in prison Tuesday, saying anything he suffered at the hands of the CIA and others “pales in comparison to the suffering and the horror” caused by the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.
U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan sentenced Ahmed Ghailani to life, calling the attacks “horrific” and saying the deaths and damage they caused far outweighs “any and all considerations that have been advanced on behalf of the defendant.” He also ordered Ghailani to pay $33 million in restitution.
Judge Kaplan announced the sentence in a packed Manhattan courtroom after calling it a day of justice for the defendant, as well as for the families of 224 people who died in the al-Qaida bombings, including a dozen Americans, and thousands more who were injured.
As survivors and victims’ loved ones spoke behind him, many in tears, Ghailani bowed his head and closed his eyes while gripping the edge of the defense table with both hands.
The judge said he wanted a sentence that “makes it crystal clear that others engaged or contemplating engaging in deadly acts of terrorism risk enormously serious consequences.” He said he was satisfied that Ghailani knew and intended that people would be killed as a result of his actions and the conspiracy he joined.
“This crime was so horrible,” he said. “It was a cold-blooded killing and maiming of innocent people on an enormous scale. It wrecked the lives of thousands more … who had their lives changed forever. The purpose of the crime was to create terror by causing death and destruction on a scale that was hard to imagine in 1998 when it occurred.”
Ghailani, 36, was convicted late last year of conspiring to destroy government buildings but acquitted of more than 200 counts of murder and dozens of other charges. The charge carries a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison and a maximum of life. He had asked for leniency, saying he never intended to kill anyone and he was tortured.
Ghailani, a Tanzanian, was captured in Pakistan in 2004 and later interrogated overseas at a secret CIA-run camp. He was moved to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2006 before being transferred to New York for prosecution in 2009.
The trial late last year at a lower Manhattan courthouse had been viewed as a test for President Barack Obama’s aim of putting other terrorism detainees — including self-professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed — on trial on U.S. soil.
Judge Kaplan rejected Ghailani’s pleas for leniency, saying whatever Ghailani suffered at the hands of the CIA and others “pales in comparison to the suffering and the horror he and his confederates caused.”
Evidence at trial showed that Ghailani helped purchase bomb components prior to the attacks, including 15 gas tanks designed to enhance the power of the bombs, along with one of the bomb vehicles. Written descriptions of FBI interviews quoted Ghailani as saying he realized a week before the bombings that they were intended to strike a U.S. embassy.
The jury did not see those descriptions, but they were submitted for Judge Kaplan to consider for sentencing.
The FBI also said Ghailani was trained by al-Qaida after the twin 1998 attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and became a bodyguard and cook for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan before becoming an expert document forger for the terrorist organization.
Ghailani’s lawyers argued that he was duped by friends into participating in the attack and was upset when he saw the damage done.
A group of 11 emotional survivors of the attacks and family members of those who died spoke at the sentencing, including Sue Bartley, a Washington-area resident who lost her husband, Julian Leotis Bartley Sr., then U.S. consul general to Kenya, and her son, Julian “Jay” Bartley Jr.
Bartley said the attacks were still fresh in her mind and “excruciatingly painful. What remains is a lingering, unsettling feeling that is compounded by grief, deep sadness and anger. The pain is with me every day. Often times it is unthinkable.”
Justina L. Mdobilu said she was the only Tanzanian victim to attend the sentencing and believed others stayed away because it was too painful.
“Nobody wants to come. People are upset. People are going through post-traumatic syndrome,” she said.
James Ndeda, of Nairobi, asked Kaplan to order Ghailani to prison for a year for each of the victims.
“Ghailani and his accomplices shattered our lives,” said Ndeda, who suffered a skull fracture, as well as eye and back problems that continue 12 years later.
Ghailani is the fifth person to be sentenced. Four others were sentenced to life in prison after a 2001 trial in Manhattan federal court. Bin Laden is charged in the indictment, as well.
Before sentencing, defense attorney Peter Quijano portrayed his client as a hero, saying he had provided U.S. authorities with “intelligence and information that arguably saved lives and I submit that is not hyperbole.”
He also said Ghailani cried when he learned about the attacks. Ghailani declined to speak on his own behalf.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Farbiarz called Ghailani “a man who cannot muster a moment of contrition.”
He said the attacks were “an act of horror and brutality and terror on a scale that is unfathomable, that words don’t reach. He took away hundreds and hundreds of lives. In response to that, you should take away his freedom and take it away forever.”
Farbiarz added: “By his actions, Ahmed Ghailani has marked himself as an enemy of society, as evil. He should never be permitted to return to society.”
Outside the courthouse immediately after the life sentence was announced, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “Today, our goal was achieved, as Ahmed Ghailani will never again breathe free air.”