Embassy bombings widow advocates civilian trials

Smoke rises from the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in this frame grab from television, after a suIcide car bomb exploded outside it Friday Aug. 7 1998.
Smoke rises from the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in this frame grab from television, after a suIcide car bomb exploded outside it Friday Aug. 7 1998. ASSOCIATED PRESS

An American college professor whose Kenyan husband was killed in the 1998 al Qaeda suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania said Tuesday that a Guantánamo detainee accused in the attack should be tried in a civilian federal court, not by a military commission.

''These commissions have been fraught with challenges -- from coerced evidence to secret evidence,'' said Susan Hirsch, a professor at George Mason University outside Washington, D.C.

She called the Guantánamo war court, established after the 9/11 attacks, ''an unprecedented newly created procedure'' that has been ``roundly condemned worldwide.''

Hirsch, 48, spoke with The Miami Herald a day after the Pentagon prosecutor filed proposed death penalty charges against Ahmad Ghailani, in his 30s. He is accused of helping collect materials for a truck bomb that blew through the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Aug. 7, 1998.

The Pentagon maintains that the trials by commissions are fair and give accused terrorists many of the same rights as American soldiers.

Hirsch, 48, spoke a day after the Pentagon prosecutor filed proposed charges against Ahmad Ghailani in the embassy bombing that killed her husband. Ghailani was accused of helping gather up the parts for truck bomb that blew through the embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Aug. 7, 1998.

Ghailani already was indicted in New York 10 years ago for his involvement in the attack, an indictment that possibly could have seen him already tried and sentenced, had he been turned over to civilian prosecutors for trial when he was arrested in Pakistan in July 2004.

Instead, he was held secretly by the CIA until September 2006, then turned over to military authorities, who transferred him to Guantánamo.

Four other men were tried in New York for the East Africa bombings, which struck in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, Kenya, killing more than 220 people, including 12 Americans, and injuring more than 4,000.

Each of the men, who were brought to the United States for trial, was convicted and is serving a sentence of life in prison.

Among those killed in Tanzania was Abdurahman Abdalla, a Muslim from Kenya, who was waiting outside the embassy while his American wife, Hirsch, was inside, cashing a check.

Hirsch both attended and testified as a victim at the trial, which was held in New York City.

''In my view, when Ghailani was picked up in Pakistan in 2004, he could've been brought to federal court. That's the kind of justice I would support,'' said Hirsch, a cultural anthropology professor who was teaching at Dar es Salaam University as a Fulbright lecturer in 1998.

What faces Ghailani now is uncertain. The Bush administration established military commissions after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to be the first U.S. war crimes tribunals since World War II. The aim was to prosecute al Qaeda and other war-on-terror captives captured abroad.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the first format unconstitutional. The current formula, authorized by the 2006 Military Commissions Act, has been attacked by legal advocates and others for allowing evidence obtained through coercion, holding closed sessions and being overseen by White House appointees subject to political pressure.

Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the commissions legal advisor and most forceful public defender, argues that commissions offer many of the same protections given to U.S. troops at military courts martial.

Ghailani, he said, is facing commission rather than civilian justice because he was sent to Guantánamo by order of President Bush. But that does not preclude prosecution in civilian courts, too, he added.

Hirsch said in an interview Tuesday that she opposes the death penalty, which is sought in the Ghailani case.

She has written In The Moment of Greatest Calamity: Terrorism, Grief and a Victim's Quest for Justice about her loss and the subsequent trial.

She said she had been notified before Monday's Pentagon announcement that prosecutors were preparing charges against Ghailani. But she said she had not been invited to observe proceedings at Guantánamo, like she had at the New York trials.

If invited, she said, she would consider attending.

A professor of cultural anthropology at George Mason, Hirsch runs the suburban Washington D.C.'s Undergraduate Program Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

Hirsch testified in the sentencing phase of the 2001 trial of the four men charged in the bombings -- a Lebanese-born naturalized American, a Saudi, a Tanzanian and a Jordanian.

All four got life sentences without possibility of parole.

On Monday, the New York U.S. Attorneys office as well as the Department of Justice declined to comment on whether they would seek to prosecute Ghailani in civilian court. The Pentagon's military commissions legal advisor said Monday there is nothing to prevent both a civilian and a military commission trial.