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Ghailani Gets Life Sentence for Embassy Plot

Ahmed Ghailani sentencing, New York, Jan. 25. 2011.
AP/Christine Cornell
Updated 2:51 p.m. ET

NEW YORK - A judge sentenced the first Guantanamo detainee to have a U.S. civilian trial to life in prison Tuesday, saying anything he suffered at the hands of the CIA and others "pales in comparison to the suffering and the horror" caused by the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan sentenced Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani to life, calling the attacks "horrific" and saying the deaths and damage they caused far outweighs "any and all considerations that have been advanced on behalf of the defendant." He also ordered Ghailani to pay $33 million in restitution.

Victims Speak Out at Sentencing

Kaplan announced the sentence in a packed Manhattan courtroom after calling it a day of justice for the defendant, as well as for the families of 224 people who died in the al Qaeda bombings, including a dozen Americans, and thousands more who were injured.

Ghailani, dropped his head and closed his eyes when the life sentence was imposed, reports CBS News investigative producer Pat Milton.

The judge said he wanted a sentence that "makes it crystal clear that others engaged or contemplating engaging in deadly acts of terrorism risk enormously serious consequences." He said he was satisfied that Ghailani knew and intended that people would be killed as a result of his actions and the conspiracy he joined.

"This crime was so horrible," he said. "It was a cold-blooded killing and maiming of innocent people on an enormous scale. It wrecked the lives of thousands more ... who had their lives changed forever. The purpose of the crime was to create terror by causing death and destruction on a scale that was hard to imagine in 1998 when it occurred."

Ghailani, wearing a blue shirt gray slacks and a pencil thin mustache kept his eyes downcast as he sat at the defense table while numerous victims - many fighting back tears - rose to describe for the court their pain and suffering during a two-hour proceeding.

Ghailani's high-profile trial was considered a test case in which the U.S. government was hoping to clear the way for trials in civilian courts instead of military tribunals for other Guantanamo detainees including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 2001 terror attacks.

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Defense: Al Qaeda Suspect Is Innocent
Prosecutors: Ahmed Ghailani a Mass Murderer

Ghailani, 36, was convicted late last year of conspiring to destroy government buildings but acquitted of more than 200 counts of murder and dozens of other charges.

He had asked for leniency, saying he never intended to kill anyone and he was tortured in government custody.

Kaplan rejected requests Ghailani's pleas for leniency, saying whatever Ghailani suffered at the hands of the CIA and others "pales in comparison to the suffering and the horror he and his confederates caused."

Ghailani, who flew to Karachi, Pakistan, with senior al Qaeda operatives the day before the embassy bombings, was a fugitive for six years until his capture in Pakistan in 2004. He spent five years in CIA and military custody, before his transfer to face a long-standing indictment in federal court exclusively for his pre-9/11 conduct.

"Ghailani will now rightly serve the rest of his life in prison for his role in the attacks against American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that left 224 dead, including twelve Americans," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement Tuesday. "...we hope this life sentence brings some measure of justice to the victims of these attacks and their families and friends who have waited so long for this day."

Evidence at trial showed that Ghailani helped purchase bomb components prior to the attacks, including 15 gas tanks designed to enhance the power of the bombs, along with one of the bomb vehicles. Written descriptions of FBI interviews quoted Ghailani as saying he realized a week before the bombings that they were intended to strike a U.S. embassy.

The jury did not see those descriptions, but they were submitted for Kaplan to consider for sentencing.

The FBI also said Ghailani was trained by al Qaeda after the twin 1998 attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and became a bodyguard and cook for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan before becoming an expert document forger for the terrorist organization.

Ghailani's lawyers argued that he was duped by friends into participating in the attack and was upset when he saw the damage done.

A group of 11 emotional survivors of the attacks and family members of those who died spoke at the sentencing, including Sue Bartley, a Washington-area resident who lost her husband, Julian Leotis Bartley Sr., then U.S. consul general to Kenya, and her son, Julian "Jay" Bartley Jr.

Bartley said the attacks were still fresh in her mind and "excruciatingly painful. What remains is a lingering, unsettling feeling that is compounded by grief, deep sadness and anger. The pain is with me every day. Often times it is unthinkable."

Justina L. Mdobilu said she was the only Tanzanian victim to attend the sentencing and believed others stayed away because it was too painful.

"Nobody wants to come. People are upset. People are going through post-traumatic syndrome," she said.

Ghailani is the fifth person to be sentenced in the embassy bombing conspiracy. Four others were sentenced to life in prison after a 2001 trial in Manhattan federal court. Bin Laden is charged in the indictment, as well.

Before sentencing, defense attorney Peter Quijano portrayed his client as a hero, saying he had provided U.S. authorities with "intelligence and information that arguably saved lives and I submit that is not hyperbole."

He also said Ghailani cried when he learned about the attacks. Ghailani declined to speak on his own behalf.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Farbiarz called Ghailani "a man who cannot muster a moment of contrition."

He said the attacks were "an act of horror and brutality and terror on a scale that is unfathomable, that words don't reach. He took away hundreds and hundreds of lives. In response to that, you should take away his freedom and take it away forever."

Farbiarz added: "By his actions, Ahmed Ghailani has marked himself as an enemy of society, as evil. He should never be permitted to return to society."

Outside the courthouse immediately after the life sentence was announced, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who led the team overseeing the prosecution, said: "Today, our goal was achieved, as Ahmed Ghailani will never again breathe free air."

CBS News Producer Phil Hirschkorn contributed to this story