NEW YORK — Under heavy guard, a Guantanamo Bay detainee walked into a civilian U.S. courtroom for the first time Tuesday, underscoring the Obama administration's determination to close the Cuban prison and hold trials here despite Republican alarms about bringing terror suspects to America.
Ahmed Ghailani, a Tanzanian accused in two American Embassy bombings a decade ago, pleaded not guilty — in English — in a brief but historic federal court hearing that transported him from open-ended military detention to the civilian criminal justice system.
President Barack Obama has said keeping Ghailani from coming to the United States "would prevent his trial and conviction." Taking a drastically different stance, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio labeled Tuesday's move "the first step in the Democrats' plan to import terrorists into America."
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Ghailani, accused of being a bomb-maker, document forger and aide to Osama bin Laden, was brought to New York to await trial in connection with al-Qaida bombings that killed 224 people — including 12 Americans — at the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.
U.S. marshals took custody of Ghailani from his military jailers and transferred him to a federal lockup in lower Manhattan that currently holds financial swindler Bernard Madoff, and once held mob scion John "Junior" Gotti and blind terror leader Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman.
Short and slim with a wispy goatee, Ghailani walked into the courtroom without shackles or handcuffs, wearing a blue jail smock.
He listened at times through an interpreter but then removed the headphones and appeared to understand what was said in English.
Asked by the judge if he wanted her to "read this big fat indictment," he conferred with his lawyer, said it was not necessary and made his plea: "not guilty."
About 10 deputy marshals were in the courtroom, including two who were behind him.
Ghailani's attorney, Scott L. Fenstermaker, declined comment after the hearing.
"We are ready to proceed in the case," declared Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin, who said there was "voluminous" evidence to be shared among attorneys.
U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska acknowledged Ghailani's U.S. military lawyers, Marine Col. Jeffrey Colwell and Air Force Maj. Richard Reiter, who were seated in the courtroom but were not representing him at the hearing.
"Anything you can do to help him transition to the civilian courts will be greatly appreciated," she said.
Ghailani's trial will be an important test case for Obama's plan to close the detention center at Guantanamo in seven months and bring some of the terror suspects there to trial.
Attorney General Eric Holder said, "The Justice Department has a long history of securely detaining and successfully prosecuting terror suspects through the criminal justice system, and we will bring that experience to bear in seeking justice in this case."
Though the bombings were a decade ago, "for us, it's like yesterday," said 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.
"The embassy bombings were a precursor to 9/11. And even though we know that an American embassy located in any country is American soil, I don't think people really understand that," she said.
The U.S. response to the 2001 terror attacks — including the opening of the Guantanamo detention center — could also complicate Ghailani's case, as defense lawyers are likely to mount legal challenges based on the circumstances of his capture, detention and treatment over the years.
Justice Department officials would not say Tuesday what would be done with Ghailani if he were acquitted, but in past cases a non-citizen defendant would be turned over to immigration authorities for deportation.
There will also be political challenges to Ghailani's trial.
Congressional Republicans have repeatedly contended that transferring terrorist suspects to U.S. soil will threaten public safety. The Guantanamo issue has seemed one of the few issues falling the Republicans' way, as polls suggest that most Americans want to keep the Cuba-based prison operating.
But if Ghailani can be handled without serious incident in New York and elsewhere, the GOP argument may lose steam and Congress may rethink its refusal to fund the closing of Guantanamo. The move also could bolster Obama's efforts to persuade other nations to accept some detainees from the prison.
U.S. officials contend Ghailani began a terrorist career on a bicycle delivering bomb parts and rose through the al-Qaida ranks to become an aide to bin Laden.
After the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings at U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Ghailani worked his way up the al-Qaida ranks, according to military prosecutors.
He was categorized as a high-value detainee by U.S. authorities after he was captured in Pakistan in 2004, and he was transferred to the detention center at the U.S. naval base in Cuba two years later.
Ghailani has denied knowing that the TNT and oxygen tanks he delivered would be used to make a bomb. He also has denied buying a vehicle used in one of the attacks, saying he could not drive.
Not only Republican lawmakers have opposed bringing Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. for trial, even in heavily guarded settings. Obama faces pressure from across the political spectrum over his plan to close the detention center. Democrats have said they want to see Obama's plan for closing the base before approving money to finance it, and Republicans are fighting to keep Guantanamo open.
The decision to try Ghailani in New York also revives a long-dormant case charging bin Laden and other top al-Qaida leadership with plotting the embassy attacks, which led then-President Bill Clinton to launch cruise missile attacks two weeks later on bin Laden's Afghan camps.
Four other men have been tried and convicted in the New York courthouse for their roles in the embassy attacks. All were sentenced to life in prison.