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U.S. court upholds ex-Guantanamo detainee's conviction over embassy blasts

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court ruled Thursday that a Guantanamo Bay detainee's constitutional right to speedy trial was not violated by his five years in detention, upholding his conviction and life sentence for his role in U.S. embassy bombings in Africa in 1998.

Citing the public interest in extracting information to combat terrorism, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York denied the appeal of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the only detainee at the military prison in Cuba to have been tried in U.S. civilian courts.

"We observe nothing in the text or history of the Speedy Trial Clause that requires the government to choose between national security and an orderly and fair justice system," Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes wrote for a three-judge panel. "In this case, proceedings were permissibly and reasonably delayed by weighty considerations relating to national security."

While Ghailani, 39, was convicted on only one of the more than 280 criminal counts he faced, Cabranes also found "nothing unreasonable" about a life sentence for his involvement in the August 7, 1998 bombings in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 224 people and injured thousands more.

Peter Quijano, a lawyer for Ghailani, said his client will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ghailani left Guantanamo in 2009 and is being held in a maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado, about 90 miles south of Denver.

"The government did not act expeditiously to afford Ahmed Ghailani a trial after subjecting him to enhanced interrogation techniques, and then forcing him to languish for years at Guantanamo Bay," Quijano said in an email. "A delay of more than five years - during which the defendant was tortured to extract information - was constitutionally excessive."

Jennifer Queliz, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in New York, declined to comment.

Ghailani allegedly told U.S. interrogators that he started working for al Qaeda in 1998 and was a bodyguard and cook for Osama bin Laden.

His trial was the first test of President Barack Obama's decision to prosecute in civilian court some terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo. The United States now holds 164 people there.

On October 15, alleged senior al Qaeda figure Nazih al-Ragye, known as Abu Anas al-Liby, pleaded not guilty in Manhattan federal court to charges over the Kenya bombing. He is being held without bail, and some Republican lawmakers have urged he be taken to Guantanamo for long-term interrogation.

Federal prosecutors are also pursuing their case against accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in federal court in that city.

DEFENDANT HELD TO EXTRACT 'VALUABLE INTELLIGENCE'

Following his July 2004 capture, Ghailani was held for two years in a secret jail outside the United States run by the Central Intelligence Agency and subjected to interrogation techniques designed to break down a detainee's resistance to providing information.

The defendant was moved in September 2006 to Guantanamo, where authorities planned to bring him before a military commission, and brought to New York in June 2009 to be tried in civilian court. A federal jury found him guilty in November 2010 of conspiracy to damage or destroy U.S. property.

In Thursday's decision, Cabranes said U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in Manhattan, who presided over the civilian trial, correctly concluded that the CIA hold was justified.

"The decision to place Ghailani in the CIA program was made in the reasonable belief that he had valuable information essential to combating al Qaeda and protecting national security," Cabranes wrote. "The government had reason to believe that this valuable intelligence could not have been obtained except by putting Ghailani into that program."

Cabranes added that while the delays at Guantanamo "weigh against the government" they were offset by other factors, and there was no evidence of bad faith.

Ghailani also said Kaplan should not have given jurors a charge allowing them to convict by finding that Ghailani should have known that associates were planning the bombings but "consciously avoided" confirming whether this was true.

Cabranes rejected this claim, citing "extensive evidence" suggesting that Ghailani "was aware of a high probability" that he was involved in a bombing plot with his associates.

At trial, Ghailani's defense team conceded that their client had bought gas tanks and a truck later used in the attacks but said he did not know how they would be used.

The appeal is Ghailani v. U.S., 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 11320.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman)

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