The swift trial and conviction on Wednesday of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, in New York bolsters the argument that militants like him should be tried on terrorism charges in civilian courts instead of as combatants in military commissions.
The three-week trial was held in a federal courthouse only a few blocks from where the World Trade Center stood, site of the 9/11 terrorist attack where more than 2,600 people died. Jurors needed just six hours over a two-day period to return a guilty verdict against Abu Ghaith on a charge of conspiring to kill Americans for his role as the terror group’s spokesman.
The man whom U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of New York called bin Laden’s “propaganda minister” could face life in prison when he is sentenced in September. He is the highest ranking al-Qaida figure to face trial on U.S. soil since the attacks.
Contrast this swift delivery of justice — an open trial held in a public courtroom, only one year after he was detained by U.S. authorities — with the inconclusive process involving terror detainees at the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
For everyone who wishes to see justice done to those who are genuinely guilty of committing acts of terrorism, the situation at “Gitmo” has been a years-long, frustrating process. Time after time, trials and/or commission hearings have been delayed for one reason or another, usually involving legal issues arising out of defendants’ status as enemy combatants.
Abu Ghaith, of course, could also have been labeled an enemy combatant. He met with bin Laden the day after 9/11 and made a widely circulated video gloating over the attacks, designed to win new recruits for the terrorist cause. However, he was out of the reach of U.S. terror-hunters — reportedly held by Iran for years under some sort of restriction — and thus was not arrested until March 2013, when he wound up in Jordan and was turned over to U.S. authorities. It took only a year for him to be tried and convicted.
Meanwhile, time hangs heavy at Gitmo, and there is no end in sight. The detention camp opened under President George W. Bush in January 2002, and now the current commander is making plans for a rotation of military guards that will extend beyond President Obama’s tenure, which ends in January 2017.
Although Congress has repeatedly blocked the president’s efforts to close Guantánamo, trials like the one of Abu Ghaith offer compelling evidence that civilian courts offer a better legal alternative for most of the detainees. Wednesday’s verdict should give hardliners in Congress a reason to rethink their position.
Of course, detainees such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the accused 9/11 mastermind who was tortured by the CIA and is facing the death penalty, are a different matter. The United States faces a conundrum if, and when, they ever go to trial because of the alleged torture, which would weaken the prosecution’s case in federal court, to say the least.
A report prepared by the Senate Intelligence Committee reviews the torture issue, but has remained secret over the protests of leading senators because of CIA objections about its release.
The conviction of Abu Ghaith provides one more reason to release the report. The American public deserves to know whether torturing some detainees, one of the reasons used to justify the continuing existence of the prison at Guantánamo, saved lives — or whether it was all for nothing.