(Daphne Eviatar is a senior counsel in the law and security program of Human Rights First. The opinions expressed are her own.)
By Daphne Eviatar
March 27 (Reuters) - The government's charges against Osama bin Laden's son-in-law looked pretty thin. Washington was basically claiming that the Kuwaiti imam had made a few inflammatory speeches - one praising the September 11 attacks and another warning that more attacks on tall buildings were soon to come. It didn't sound like much, given that the charges were providing "material support" for terrorism and conspiring to kill Americans.
But less than a year later, 48-year-old Suleiman Abu Ghaith stands convicted on all counts, following a jury trial in a U.S. federal court. Over the three-week trial the government managed to convince a jury that the cleric's actions - giving a handful of speeches for al Qaeda, some on camera seated next to bin Laden - made him responsible for the September 11 attacks, the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, and the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, a Navy ship docked in Yemen. Abu Ghaith didn't even make his first videotaped speech until September 12, 2001.
It's an odd quirk of U.S. conspiracy law. If someone joins a conspiracy, though it may be years after it started, he's still liable for all the murder and mayhem his co-conspirators caused, even if it was long before he came along.
That's what happened to Abu Ghaith. The jury may have believed he only gave a few speeches helping al Qaeda after the September 11 attacks, which is when he says he first met bin Laden, but Abu Ghaith is legally responsible for every American who bin Laden and his compatriots killed before that.
Some people assert that the U.S. conspiracy law is too broad. More surprising is that some people think the U.S. federal courts are too lenient. Suspected terrorists should not be granted "the same rights as U.S. citizens," insisted lawmakers such as Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, when Abu Ghaith was arrested.
"He is an enemy combatant," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, "and should be held in military custody." Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a former military lawyer, insisted, "We're now setting a new precedent that will come back to bite us."
The funny thing is that at Guantanamo Bay, 12 years later, the five alleged (and self-described) masterminds of the September 11 terrorist attacks still haven't been convicted of any crimes. Though seized by U.S. forces within a few years of the attacks, they're still nowhere near being brought to justice.
I can't even imagine how the survivors of the victims of those attacks must feel. Many of them regularly make the exhausting trip to Guantanamo to watch court proceedings, only to end up seeing drawn-out procedural arguments over faulty computer systems and what the defendants can or can't say in court.
Of the 779 people detained at Guantanamo Bay prison since it opened in 2002, only nine have been charged and brought to justice. One, Ahmed Ghailani, was transferred to the United States to stand trial in 2010 for his role in the 1998 embassy bombings and is now serving a life sentence. The rest have faced military commission convictions; only three of them are still imprisoned at Guantanamo.
There are still 154 detainees at the prison camp in Cuba. What's now clear from the Abu Ghaith case is that none of them belong there.
If they've participated in a crime by helping al Qaeda in any conceivable way, the U.S. federal justice system won't hesitate to throw the book at them. As we've seen from the nearly 500 other people who were convicted on terrorism-related grounds since September 11, 2001, they're not likely to walk free.
But keeping them at Guantanamo Bay does no one a service. Not the U.S. government, which badly needs to restore its credibility after years of torture and other missteps in counterterrorism policy; not the families who have had to wait interminably to see justice done after the horrific murder of their loved ones, and certainly not U.S. national security, which continues to be undermined by the very existence of the notorious detention center, not to mention its growing monetary costs.
President Barack Obama promised again this year to close Guantanamo Bay. He should use the Abu Ghaith case as a prime example for why we really don't need it. (Daphne Eviatar)