, NEW YORK, Oct 13 – US prosecutors on Tuesday painted a man accused in the bombings of two US embassies in Africa as an Al-Qaeda killer, but defence lawyers called him an innocent man, wrongly swept into the war on terror.
The opening statements in a New York federal court finally kicked off the politically charged trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first former inmate of the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be brought before a civilian judge.
Ghailani faces a staggering 286 criminal counts including murder and conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction during the 1998 attacks against the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people.
Prosecutor Nicholas Lewin said Ghailani was an integral part of Osama bin Laden\’s world of America-hating militants and that he helped supervise the construction of the massive truck bomb that rammed into the US embassy in Tanzania\’s capital Dar-es-Salaam.
"He and his accomplices were committed to Al-Qaeda\’s overriding goal to kill Americans," Lewin said.
"We will prove both of these massacres in East Africa were the work of a single Al-Qaeda cell. And this man, Ahmed Ghailani, was a vital part of that cell," Lewin said, pointing dramatically at the defendant, who sat impassively, wearing a gray v-neck sweater.
The prosecution\’s first witness was John Lange, the Dar-es-Salaam embassy\’s acting ambassador in 1988, who described escaping the wrecked building and encountering a burned man lying on the ground "in the last gasps of life."
Other government witnesses will include a convicted former al-Qaeda militant who has agreed to testify against Ghailani in hopes of being given a lighter sentence, Lewin said.
Speaking softly, defence lawyer Steve Zissou attempted to sow doubt in the jurors\’ minds as they embarked on a trial being watched closely in Washington for evidence of whether civilian courts can handle defendants transferred from the legal murk of Guantanamo.
Zissou portrayed Ghailani, a small, youthful-looking Tanzanian in his mid-30s, as an unwitting accessory in the deadly, double-bomb plot concocted by radical, older friends.
Ghailani was a "dupe" who "tagged along" and when he helped buy the truck used in the Dar-es-Salaam blast, he had no idea what the purpose was, Zissou said.
"All of errands that he did were all part of totally normal business arrangements."
"The case is going to come down to one simple question: did he know?
"At the end of this case you are going to conclude that the answer to that question is no," Zissou said.
President Barack Obama believes that some terror suspects should be brought before ordinary criminal courts.
He has also pledged to close the controversial prison facility at Guantanamo, where Ghailani arrived after being held by the CIA in secret prisons and subjected to so-called "enhanced interrogation" or what his lawyers call torture.
Ghailani is indeed now being tried in an ordinary courthouse, an impressive federal complex that daily delivers justice to a huge assortment of alleged fraudsters, murderers, and lesser defendants.
Yet the trial is anything but ordinary.
Opening statements were delayed for a week after Judge Lewis Kaplan excluded a witness who prosecutors say admits to selling explosives to Ghailani before the bombings.
Kaplan said the witness could not be allowed because his identity was discovered as a result of Ghailani being subjected to CIA interrogations.
Reflecting security concerns around the case, the identities of the 12 jurors and six reserves will be kept secret.
Although they have not been sequestered, jurors\’ trips to and from the court in the morning and evening will be made with court officers using confidential, pre-arranged pick-up points.
Kaplan also told the jury to isolate themselves from what promises to be heavy media coverage of the case.
"You are not to send or receive any e-mails, tweets or other form of communication that touch on this case," he instructed them. "Stay away from the Internet, away from the library."
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the trial is that there appears to be little chance of Ghailani ever walking free, regardless of what the jury decides.
Kaplan has ruled that even if acquitted in court Ghailani could be detained for life as an "enemy combatant."