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Initial Thoughts on the Ghailani Verdict

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The conventional wisdom in the press today is that the conviction of Ahmed Ghailani on only one of 285 possible charges by a civilian court in New York will hobble the Administration’s case that justice can be brought to terror suspects in civilian courts.

Certainly Republicans have pounced on the opportunity to spin the verdict in this light. Of course, given that the single conviction of conspiracy carries a 20-year minimum sentence, it’s hard to see how justice isn’t being served here. However as Benjamin Wittes explains, that hardly matters from a political perspective.

Two other observations about this case and its wider relationship to the debate over humane treatment of detainees:

1) First, what the Republicans aren’t saying: the main reason why so few charges resulted in a conviction is that evidence gained by the US under torture is inadmissible. So what this verdict shows is not that civilian courts can’t successfully prosecute terrorists, but that fair trials in any court are stymied by a widespread policy of torturing detainees.

2) Second, there is a tremendous irony from a human rights perspective: Ghailani will likely serve his sentence in solitary confinement at a Supermax prison, with near-complete sensory deprivation, no access to human contact, and at most one hour of time outside his cell per day. According to a a UN panel”>1996 UN panel these constitute inhumane conditions and likely violate not only international law but also the US Constitution’s eighth amendment prohibition on cruel and degrading punishment. From a humane treatment perspective, he might have been better off remaining indefinitely detained at Guantanamo Bay than sequestered for 20 years in the US civilian prison system.

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