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Ghailani Sentence Shows Federal Courts Work, Reveals Extent of Republican Hysteria

For those of us seeking a grown-up debate about Guantánamo in the two years since President Obama came into office, the most troubling development has been the retrenchment of Republican opposition to the closure of the prison, backed up by alarming support for the pro-Guantánamo position by members of the President’s own party. ghailanitrialoct10-300x231.jpg

Like a dark magic spell capable of banishing all sensible discourse in an instant, the merest mention of the words “Guantánamo” and “terrorism” in the same sentence is sufficient to send lawmakers into paroxyms of hysteria, and nowhere is this more true than when it comes to proposals to put any of the Guantánamo prisoners on trial for their alleged offenses.

Guantánamo’s supporters are so wedded to the Bush administration’s false and damaging nation that, in the “War on Terror,” terrorists are no longer criminals but are “warriors,” that when Attorney General Eric Holder announced in November 2009 that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks would face a federal court trial in New York, they raised a cacophonous roar of opposition, bleating that establishing security at the courthouse would be prohibitively expensive, and warning that the trial would lead to a terrorist attack by al-Qaeda.

Last month, emboldened by their success in persuading Obama to shelve the plans for the 9/11 trial, lawmakers followed up by including a provision in a military spending bill prohibiting the transfer of any Guantánamo prisoner to the US mainland for any reason (and explicitly mentioning Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by name), even though it was clearly unconstitutional to do so.

Conveniently ignored by the fearmongers was the rather more mundane reality that, when Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a former CIA “ghost prisoner,” and the only Guantánamo detainee to be moved to the US to face a federal court trial before Congress decided to impose unconstitutional demands on the President, was put on trial in New York in October, there was no need for wildly expensive security, and no notion that terrorists would swoop from the skies to attack the courtroom.

Instead, the apologists for Guantánamo immediately changed their approach, blasting Judge Lewis Kaplan for obeying US law and refusing to accept information derived through the use of torture — the name of an allegedly important witness who later testified under dubious circumstances, and whose name was only divulged by Ghailani while he was being tortured in a secret CIA prison.

While this was despicable enough, as it indicated that, so long as the words “Guantánamo” and “terrorism” were uttered together, it ought to be acceptable for a District Court judge to ignore the US anti-torture statute, the critics of federal court trials then proceeded to decry the trial’s conclusion — a guilty verdict on one count of conspiracy in connection with the US embassy bombing in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, in August 1998, along with the dismissal of 284 other charges — even though, as we saw yesterday in the sentence handed down by Judge Kaplan, that single conviction has led to a life sentence without parole.

What is particularly depressing about this topsy-turvy “Alice in Wonderland” world, in which success is portrayed as failure, and no one even blinks in dissent, is that the manufactured hysteria when “Guantánamo” and “terrorism” are mentioned together not only disguises the fact that federal courts have a proven track record of successfully prosecuting terrorism cases (and are, in fact, empowered to deliver punitive sentences on the flimsiest of bases), but also disguises a fundamentally bleak truth about Guantánamo.

The bleak truth is that, in a prison with such a notorious and demonstrable history of torture — particularly in connection with Ghailani, KSM and 12 other “high-value detainees,” as well as dozens of other men tortured in secret CIA prisons, or in proxy facilities in other countries — the presumption ought to be that the government’s assertions about these men are fundamentally unreliable, because torture is unreliable as well as illegal, and should not be taken at face value.

Instead, however, the opposite is true, and Ghaliani, for example, was happily judged to be guilty until proven guilty, by those who will, no doubt, still complain that he received a life senternce on just one count of conspiracy, and not on all of the 285 charges he faced.

With Ghailani’s life sentence, it is time for this cynical nonsense to come to an end. Federal court trials for terrorists work, and opponents should now cease whining, let go of their ideologically misplaced obsession with trying “warriors” in military trials at Guantánamo, and allow the administration to proceed with the federal court trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators.

Nine years and four months after the 9/11 attacks, the relatives of the victims of that dreadful day deserve justice, and not to be made playthings by cynical lawmakers — and their echo chambers in the right-wing media — who will soon realize that their beloved Military Commissions are fraught with problems, and will, if given the chance, shift their focus so that, in the not too distant future, we will be hearing that some people — like KSM and his co-accused — are so dangerous that they cannot even be put on trial at all.

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Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is a journalist and historian, based in London. He is the author of The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 759 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison, the first book to tell the stories of all the detainees in America's illegal prison. For more information, visit his blog here.


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