The Abu Ghaith Trial: How U.S. terrorism prosecutions are supposed to happen

Today’s conviction on all counts in the trial of  Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law is the best response yet to critics like Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham who claim suspected al Qaeda terrorists should be sent to Guantanamo. Sulaiman Abu Ghaith’s case went to trial just one year after he was arrested, interrogated  (he confessed) and charged. An impartial and carefully vetted jury listened to almost three weeks of testimony, reviewed the evidence and unanimously found the defendant guilty on all counts.  He’s almost certain to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Compare that to what’s happening at Gitmo.  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-defendants accused of masterminding the 9/11 terrorist attacks still aren’t anywhere near trial, even though they’ve been in U.S. custody for about a decade for a crime committed over 12 years ago.  While Abu Ghaith was convicted just 13 months after his arrest in a U.S. federal court that has clear laws and international credibility, the legal proceedings at Guantanamo are dragging on for years as the lawyers argue over what rules and laws apply and the judge struggles to move the case toward trial without any legal precedent to guide him.  It’s an international embarrassment that can only be hurting U.S. national security.

More importantly, it’s completely unfair to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks and their survivors. I saw some of them sitting in the courtroom throughout the Abu Ghaith case, since the government tied his activities to al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks.  They could only have been impressed by the incredibly organized, efficient and straightforward case against the defendant that the U.S. Attorney’s office presented.  Obviously, the jury was.  Though Abu Ghaith had his day in court, with an effective and persuasive lawyer of his own, the evidence – and U.S. federal law – were stacked against him.

That’s how U.S. terrorism prosecutions are supposed to happen:  in a respected and impartial court of law, where both sides present their case in public.  The Abu Ghaith verdict is the best case yet for shutting down the secretive and badly-botched Guantanamo military commissions. 

About the Author(s)

Daphne Eviatar

Director of the Security with Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA She advocates for US compliance with international law in US national security policy. Follow her on Twitter (@deviatar).