Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani is depicted in this courtroom sketch of his arraignment in New York in June, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

(New York) - The sentence of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani to life in prison without the possibility of parole underscored the value of trying terrorism suspects in civilian courts rather than in discredited military commissions, Human Rights Watch said today. The sentence marks the end of the first successful prosecution of a former Guantanamo detainee in US federal court.

"The Ghailani trial demonstrated that a complex case for a horrendous crime committed abroad can be fairly tried in a legitimate system and result in a sentence worthy of that crime," said Laura Pitter, counterterrorism advisor at Human Rights Watch. "Such a verdict and sentence before a military commission would only have raised questions about the fairness of the trial."

Ghailani was found guilty on November 17, 2010, of one count of conspiracy to destroy US government property in connection with the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people and injured more than a thousand. The conviction carried a minimum 20-year sentence and maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Ghailani had been held for years at a secret Central Intelligence Agency "black site" before being transferred to the US military prison at Guantanamo in September 2006. In May 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder directed that he be moved to the United States and tried in US federal court.

In November 2009, Holder announced that the five defendants in the prosecution for the September 11, 2001 attacks would be moved from Guantanamo to stand trial in federal district court in New York City, a site of the attacks. However, on December 22, 2010, Congress passed restrictions barring the use of Department of Defense funds for the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the US. The administration still has the power to use funds from other agencies to transfer Guantanamo detainees to federal court, however they have not publically declared their intention to do so.

The military commissions at Guantanamo have been marred by procedural irregularities, use of coerced evidence, inconsistent application of ever-changing rules of evidence, poor translation, and lack of public access. They also violate international standards by contravening the prohibition on retroactive criminal charges, authorizing charges never previously considered war crimes, and by only having jurisdiction over non-US citizens. Thus, any military commission verdicts will be highly vulnerable to appellate challenge and ultimately being ruled unconstitutional.

"Trying Ghailani in US federal court rather than before a flawed and ad hoc military commission was the smart as well as the lawful thing to do," Pitter said. "The trial demonstrated the strength of the civilian court system."