In a reversal of Bush administration policy, the first Guantánamo detainee was transferred Tuesday to U.S. soil for trial on capital terror charges.
Ahmed Ghailani, a Tanzanian age about 35, pleaded not guilty during an appearance in federal court in New York City to embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania almost 11 years ago.
A predawn Justice Department statement said Ghailani was being housed in the Metropolitan Correction Center, a medium to maximum-security lockup in downtown Manhattan that has held alleged al Qaeda arch-terrorists and financier Bernard Madoff.
The announcement drew a sharp response from House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, who said in a statement, 'This is the first step in the Democrats' plan to import terrorists into America'' despite ``the overwhelming opposition of the American people.''
But Randy Mastro, former New York City deputy mayor under Rudolph Giuliani and co-chair of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher's litigation and crisis management groups, said the New York venue is ``very fitting, as it is the site of two previous terrorist attacks.''
Ghailani, born in Zanzibar and captured in Afghanistan, had been held at a secret supermax-style lockup at the remote U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba called Camp 7.
During his arraignment Tuesday afternoon, Ghailani pleaded not guilty as an alleged co-conspirator in the Aug. 7, 1998, U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed 234 people, including 12 Americans.
The development illustrated a White House commitment to break with the Bush administration and move some of the 200 or so war-on-terror detainees from military to civilian trials.
It came just weeks after Congress stripped $80 million from a supplemental Defense Department budget the White House had sought to pay lawyers' fees and possibly use on infrastructure costs as it plans to empty the prison camps at Guantánamo by Jan. 22.
Ghailani is the fourth captive to leave the detention center since Barack Obama became president and signed an executive order for Guantánamo's closing on his second full day in office.
Two were freed in Europe. A Yemeni man was found dead in his cell earlier this month in what prison camp officials said was suicide. His remains were sent for burial in his homeland.
Obama's administration is also revising the special war-on-terror court the Bush administration created at Guantánamo called military commissions.
But it has yet to say which prisoners could still face commission trials and which could go to federal court.
''The Justice Department has a long history of securely detaining and successfully prosecuting terror suspects through the criminal justice system,'' Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
``We will bring that experience to bear in seeking justice in this case.''
While a first, and at a politically sensitive time in the ongoing review of the Guantánamo case, the Ghailani transfer was not unexpected.
A Pentagon official withdrew military commissions charges against Ghailani two weeks ago, once Holder announced his preference to try him in a civilian setting on a 1990s-era indictment that had been unsealed years before the Tanzanian was captured by U.S. authorities.
At Guantánamo, the charges carried a maximum penalty of life in prison.
THE DEATH PENALTY
The 286-count federal indictment, which names Osama bin Laden as co-conspirator, includes 262 counts that could carry the death penalty.
Opponents of Guantánamo's closure argue that the Bush administration kept America safe by establishing the controversial detention center to both interrogate suspects and keep alleged terrorists away from U.S. soil.
They defend military commissions as a national security court fashioned to handle cases too sensitive for traditional civilian juries.
A defender and architect of Bush-era Guantánamo policy lambasted the overnight transfer as part of a ''dangerous'' and ''piecemeal approach'' to national security that risked a civilian trial that could end in acquittal.
''By moving a terrorist into the federal prison and court system, the president is blatantly ignoring the demands of Congress and the American people who want a policy and procedure in place for what to do with the detainees before bringing them into the United States,'' said retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold of Military Families United, a Washington lobby.