NEW YORK — The first Guantanamo detainee to face a civilian trial was acquitted Wednesday of most charges he helped unleash death and destruction on two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 — an opening salvo in al-Qaida's campaign to kill Americans, according to the Associated Press
. The stunning verdict is a huge blow to the Obama administration’s push for putting terrorists on trial in civilian courts.
Republicans and key Democrats, especially those representing New York City, have argued against placing the trial of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed there. Meanwhile other lawmakers in states like Michigan have rejected the notion of placing al-Qaida terrorists in federal prisons.
The Obama administration has waffled on the matter, but a key promise of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was the closing of the terrorist detainee facility at Guantanamo Naval Station in Cuba.
A federal jury convicted Ahmed Ghailani of one count of conspiracy and acquitted him of all other counts, including murder and murder conspiracy, in the embassy bombings, the AP reported. The anonymous federal jury deliberated over seven days, with a juror writing a note to the judge saying she felt threatened by other jurors.
Prosecutors had branded Ghailani a cold-blooded terrorist. The defense portrayed him as a clueless errand boy, exploited by senior al-Qaida operatives and framed by evidence from contaminated crime scenes.
Prosecutors attempted to show Ghailani intended to contribute to the bombing, pointing to evidence that he allegedly obtained gas tanks used in the attack in Tanzania. They also noted his presence in Dar es Salaam and Mombasa, Kenya, with members of the bomb plot, according to CNN.
The prosecution, which made its closing arguments November 8, accused Ghailani of 285 counts of conspiracy and terrorism-related charges.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Chernoff said he played a key role in securing the trucks that carried the bomb in Tanzania and securing other materials.
"He is a mass murderer who has the blood of hundreds on his hands," Chernoff told the jury.
The trial at a lower Manhattan courthouse had been viewed as a possible test case for President Barack Obama administration's aim of putting other terror detainees — including self-professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — on trial on U.S. soil.
Ghailani's prosecution also demonstrated some of the constitutional challenges the government would face if that happens. On the eve of his trial last month, the judge barred the government from calling a key witness because the witness had been identified while Ghailani was being held at a secret CIA camp where harsh interrogation techniques were used.
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