WASHINGTON, Nov 19 – President Barack Obama\’s hopes of bringing "war on terror" suspects out of the shadows to try them in the full glare of civilian courts may have been dealt a fatal blow by a New York jury, experts said on Thursday.
Tanzanian national Ahmed Ghailani, the first former Guantanamo Bay inmate to face trial in a federal court, was on Wednesday acquitted of all but one of 286 charges arising out of the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
"The verdict has offered a vision of the nightmare scenario – acquittal in a terrorism case involving a high value detainee – and that vision will be enough to ramp up the already intense pressure not to try something like this again," said legal expert Benjamin Wittes from the Brookings Institution.
Ghailani, 36, still faces up to life in prison after being found guilty of conspiracy against US property in the attacks which killed 224 people and injured thousands more.
But Wittes said Ghailani\’s final sentence, which could just be the mandatory minimum of 20 years in jail, will fail to quell the political storm about future trials of other suspects – including the self-confessed mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four alleged co-plotters.
"The only thing that will matter in the political sphere will be that prosecutors won a conviction on only one of 285 criminal counts — that they came within a hair\’s breath of losing the case entirely," he said.
Wednesday\’s verdict immediately re-ignited the fierce debate about what to do with other "war on terror" suspects currently awaiting trial before military commissions based in the remote US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Vice President Joe Biden argued that the verdict, which will see Ghailani serve at least 20 years and perhaps life in prison, proved that civilian courts were able to handle such trials.
"The same evidence would have been inadmissible" in a military tribunal, Biden told CNN\’s Larry King Live.
"He\’s getting a longer sentence. He\’ll be in jail longer than if any other method were tried… "There\’s no reason not to go with civilian court, based on this case at least," he added.
But Republicans said the verdict proved their argument that terror suspects, such as the accused 9/11 mastermind Mohammed, should be tried before the military commissions.
Americans were "wondering when the administration will admit it was wrong and assure us… that terrorists will be tried from now on in the military commission system that was established for this very purpose at the secure facility at Guantanamo Bay," said Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell.
Juan Zarate, a former advisor to president George W. Bush, called the verdict "hugely problematic" for the administration.
"It may signal the end of any hope that there will be other civilian trials for other Guantanamo detainees," he said.
The verdict will also likely mean that top Al-Qaeda leaders will remain behind bars regardless of what verdicts are reached in courts, he added.
The Obama administration is seeking to try about 40 of the 171 terror suspects in civilian courts, as part of its stalled plans to empty and close the notorious facility.
About 48 of the inmates are likely to be held indefinitely, because the evidence against them is problematic yet they are deemed too dangerous to release.
Human rights groups have raised repeated concerns about tainted evidence which they say was extracted under torture when the suspects were held in secret CIA interrogation centres.
In the Ghailani case, the jury refused to allow the prosecution to put its star witness on the stand as Ghailani gave up his name during enhanced interrogation, a fact which may have helped undermine its case.
Rights groups argued Ghailani\’s conviction showed the civilian court system worked.
"On balance the Ghailani verdict shows that federal criminal trials are far superior to military commissions for the simple yet fundamental reason that they prohibit evidence obtained by torture," the Centre for Constitutional Rights said in a statement.
"If anyone is unsatisfied with Ghailani\’s acquittal… they should blame the CIA agents who tortured him."
Families of the 9/11 victims also welcomed the verdict, saying in a statement: "We believe justice has been served."
"We are proud that reliance on the American constitution and the rule of law gained a conviction."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs meanwhile said Obama remained determined to close Guantanamo, despite missing his deadline to do so this year amid wrangling with Congress over what to do with inmates.
"The president remains committed to closing Guantanamo Bay to ensure that that is no longer the recruiting poster that it is right now for Al-Qaeda," Gibbs said.