WASHINGTON (AFP) — The Pentagon announced Monday war crimes charges carrying the death penalty against a Tanzanian inmate held in Guantanamo Bay arising from Al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in East Africa a decade ago.
The Defense Department said Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani would face a special military tribunal on nine counts including murder related to the August 1998 bombing of the embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 11 people and injured hundreds.
Military prosecutors said that after the twin bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, which altogether killed more than 200, Ghailani worked as a bodyguard for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and forged documents and trained recruits.
“Six of the nine charges carry the maximum penalty of death,” Brigadier General Thomas Hartman, legal adviser to the Office of Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay, told reporters.
Hartman said the military commission trials gave full protection to defendants, including the right to view evidence, to call witnesses and to pursue appeals against any conviction all the way up to the US Supreme Court.
The legal rights “are specifically designed to ensure that every accused receives a fair trial consistent with American standards of justice,” he said, adding that a unanimous jury of 12 is needed to deliver the death penalty.
But the Pentagon’s announcement sparked an outcry from rights campaigners, who insisted the legal front of the US “war on terror” enacted at the naval base on Cuba was a travesty of justice.
“These commissions aren’t fit to try anybody, still less to condemn anybody to death,” Amnesty International USA lawyer Jumana Musa told AFP, noting that Ghailani still faced a federal court indictment issued in 1998.
In October 2001, just after the devastating attacks on New York and Washington, four Al-Qaeda extremists were sentenced to life without parole by the Manhattan court for their part in the African embassy bombings.
“There’s absolutely no reason why Ghailani’s trial shouldn’t proceed there instead of in a military commission,” Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch said.
“It’s a particular concern that he could be sentenced to death under a system that allows, in certain circumstances, the use of evidence obtained through highly abusive interrogations, and lacks established rules and procedures,” she said.
Ghailani was arrested in Pakistan in July 2004 after a shootout with police, and transferred to US custody about five months later. He had been on the FBI’s most-wanted list and had a five million dollar bounty on his head.
When he was arrested, Ghailani was drawing up plans for a missile strike on an airliner at Nairobi airport in Kenya as well for attacks on London’s Heathrow Airport and US financial institutions, Pakistani officials said.
Ghailani’s capture was hailed as the biggest coup in the hunt for Al-Qaeda since Pakistan arrested Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in March 2003.
Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of the September 11 attacks of 2001, was slapped with capital charges in February along with five other Guantanamo detainees.
The CIA has acknowledged that waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning widely denounced as torture, was used nearly five years ago in interrogations of Mohammed.
Military prosecutors accused Ghailani of playing an instrumental role in the Dar es Salaam bombing, including buying explosives and detonators, and moving the bomb components to various safe houses around Tanzania’s biggest city.
They alleged that he scouted the US embassy with the suicide bomb driver, met with conspirators in Nairobi shortly before the bombing, and joined them on a flight to Pakistan a day prior to the attack.
A total of 15 Guantanamo detainees have now been charged under the Military Commissions Act, which was hurriedly passed by Congress in 2006 to answer Supreme Court objections to the previous system of military justice created to try “war on terror” suspects.
Only one case has been concluded through the controversial Guantanamo trial system. “Aussie Taliban” David Hicks reached a plea deal with prosecutors and completed his sentence on home soil when he returned to Australia in May.