The verdict of a New York jury on Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani has been interpreted in the US as a "setback" for President Barack Obama's policy of putting terror suspects on trial in civilian courts. On the contrary: it is a triumph for American justice and democratic values.
Ghailani, the first suspect to be transferred from Guantanamo military prison to face a civilian trial, was found guilty of conspiring in the 1998 bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The Tanzanian citizen now faces a minimum of 20 years in prison in an American jail. But there has been consternation in the US that the jury cleared Ghailani of 284 other counts of murder and attempted murder brought by the US Attorney's Office in New York.
Upon entering the White House almost two years ago, Mr Obama promised to close the military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and to put the remaining terror suspects there on trial, some in military tribunals and some in civilian courts. The alleged mastermind behind the 11 September terror attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is also due to be tried in New York.
But the outcome of the Ghailani trial threatens to disrupt those plans. The President's Republican opponents seem to believe that the New York jury delivered the "wrong" verdict on Ghailani (presumably in the sense that he should have been found guilty of all charges brought against him) and are now demanding that military tribunals be exclusively used to try former Guantanamo detainees.
This would be a grave mistake. Respect for the rule of law is what distinguishes democracies from dictatorships. In a democracy, everyone has a right to be tried in a free court, where evidence presented can be challenged. In a democracy, it is unthinkable for those suspected or accused of wrongdoing to be imprisoned simply on the say-so of the intelligence services. In a democracy, a defendant cannot be tried on the basis of evidence extracted from them under torture.
But America went down a dark path under the previous administration of George W Bush. Terror suspects and those who took up arms against US forces in Afghanistan in 2001 were captured and spirited away to secret prisons around the world. Hundreds were detained in Guantanamo with no prospect of a trial. Detainees where water-boarded to extract information from them. The world's most powerful nation ended up behaving more like a squalid dictatorship than a champion of democratic values.
President Obama sought to reverse his predecessor's shameful policy and to restore some dignity to America's tattered reputation by putting those accused of committing violence against the US on trial. But if a state is to uphold the rule of law, its leaders and officials have to accept the outcomes of the criminal justice system. In a democracy, there is no such thing as a trial in which the result is ordained in advance. And the verdict of the New York jury on Ghailani is as valid as that of any other American court of law. The decision of the judge to refuse to allow evidence to be submitted that was extracted under torture was perfectly proper. Testimony derived from such coercion cannot be relied upon.
The pressure from US conservatives for military tribunals to take over now must be resisted. Such tribunals, which are shrouded in secrecy and require much lower standards of proof, provide, at best, a diluted form of justice. They are certainly no substitute for civilian courts. Mr Obama needs to hold to his course. America's reputation depends on it.Reuse content