Eric Holder Defends Civilian Trials After Setback in Ghailani Case

This is an undated photograph of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani who was named in an indictment on Dec.16,1998 as a conspirator in the bombing of the United States embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Pakistan has arrested a Tanzanian al-Qaida suspect, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, wanted by the United States in the 1998 bombings at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the interior minister said Friday, July 30, 2004. AP

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani
AP

Updated 5:41 p.m. Eastern Time

Attorney General Eric Holder stood by his support for trying terrorism suspects in civilian courts today despite a judge's decision that the government's star witness in the trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani cannot testify. His comments come amid criticism from those who believe such suspects should be tried in military tribunals.

"By insisting on trying Ahmed Ghailani in civilian court with full constitutional rights, instead of by military commission, President Obama and Attorney General Holder are jeopardizing the prosecution of a terrorist who killed 224 people at U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania," Keep America Safe chair Liz Cheney said in response to the ruling. "If the American people needed any further proof that this Administration's policy of treating terrorism like a law enforcement matter is irresponsible and reckless, they received it today. "

Ghailani is the first former Guantanamo Bay detainee to be tried in civilian courts. The testimony of the witness, Hussein Abebe, was ruled not permissible because the government used harsh interrogation techniques to get Ghailani to disclose Abebe's identity.

Asked if the decision makes it hard for him to move forward with civilian trials for self-professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed or other terrorism suspects, Holder responded that "We're talking about one ruling in one case by one judge that we will look at and decide how we want to react to it."

He continued: "I think the true test is, ultimately, how are these cases resolved? What happens? Can these cases be brought into Article III courts and can they be successfully resolved from the government's perspective? And history has shown us over 300 times that, in fact, we can do that, either by pleas, by trials, and I think it's too early to say that at this point the Ghailani matter is not going to be successful. We have to deal with this one ruling, and we will."

Asked if returning Ghailani to enemy combatant status was "on the table" in light of the ruling, Holder vowed that the trial would continue. Critics have pushed for Ghailani and other terrorism suspects to be tried in a military tribunal, where suspects have fewer rights.

The decision in the Ghailani trial comes just one day after the White House cited another case - that of attempted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, who received a life sentence - as evidence that civilian trials work.

"We tried the case in a civilian court, we were able to use everything that he said and everything that we uncovered for intelligence collection purposes. His trial served no propaganda purpose for al Qaeda, and only underscored the strength of our justice system," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said, as Politico reports.

But Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a critic of civilian trials, suggested the government got lucky with Shahzad because he talked despite having been read his rights. "If he had not, I don't know what would have happened," he said.

King told CBS News today that he "strongly" disagrees with the judge's ruling.

"Unfortunately, however, this is the type of ruling we can expect if the Administration persists in trying terrorists in civilian courts," he added. 

Ghailani, an alleged bomb maker, is accused of involvement in the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 that killed 224 people and of working as an aide to Osama bin Laden. The judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, said that even if he is found not guilty he will likely remain in detention.

"His status as an 'enemy combatant' probably would permit his detention as something akin to a prisoner of war until hostilities between the United States and al-Qaeda and the Taliban end even if he were found not guilty in this case," he wrote in his decision.


Brian Montopoli is a political reporter for CBSNews.com. You can read more of his posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.

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