Ahmed Ghailani was transferred today from the prison at Guantánamo Bay to a New York City court—just before a panicked Congress delays such transfers—to stand trial for his role in the 1998 East Africa Embassy bombings. Ghailani’s transfer marks the first demonstration of the Obama administration’s commitment to closing Guantánamo and putting U.S. detention policy back on firm legal footing. President Barack Obama can use the trial as an example to reassure Americans that the U.S. justice system is well equipped to prosecute suspected terrorists, and U.S. maximum security prisons are capable of keeping Americans safe.
Moving Ghailani to the United States for trial follows recommendations we made in June 2008 that he should be the first Guantánamo detainee to be prosecuted in a federal criminal court. He has always been a good candidate for trial. He was indicted on 224 counts of murder in 1999 for his role in the embassy bombings, several other co-conspirators have already been convicted for their roles in the attacks, and even if the government is barred from using all information obtained from Ghailani or others since his capture, prosecutors have enough useable evidence to convict him anyway.
It is important to make this move now because Congress appears on the verge of capitulating to fear mongers and placing unwarranted restrictions on when and where the Obama administration can transfer Guantánamo detainees for either trial or release.
Some members of Congress are using the same scare tactics of our terrorist enemies and have tried to frighten the American people with ridiculous claims that Guantánamo detainees are somehow incredibly dangerous and threatening when they are locked away in maximum security U.S. prisons. The facts are, of course, that more than 200 international terrorists have been convicted in U.S. courts and reside in U.S. jails, and no one has ever escaped from a Supermax prison—the ultimate destination for Guantánamo detainees convicted in U.S. courts.
Facts and experience are the best means to counter arguments based in fear. Great care must be taken to ensure a successful prosecution, but President Obama should now be able to go to the American people armed with a clear demonstration that America’s existing institutions are capable of keeping us safe. Even if Congress delays additional transfers for several months, the next time it considers the issue it will be confronted with the reality of an ongoing trial in federal court. The sky will not have fallen.
Choosing to prosecute a Guantánamo detainee in federal court is a real and meaningful change from the previous administration and should show the world that the United States is committed to closing the prison camp. One detainee is far from a complete solution, but it is a clear and important first step in actually bringing to an end the disaster that is Guantánamo.
Ken Gude is the Associate Director of the International Rights and Responsibility Program at the Center for American Progress.
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