By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans criticized the Obama administration on Thursday for pursuing terrorism cases in federal court after a jury acquitted a man once held at the Guantanamo Bay prison on almost all of the charges related to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa.
Obama administration officials countered that the suspect, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, had been convicted on a key terrorism charge and would be sentenced to at least two decades in prison.
The officials argued that the verdict showed that the federal courts could handle major terrorism cases and they pledged to continue pursuing such cases.
Ghailani, 36, a Tanzanian from Zanzibar, had been accused of conspiring in the al Qaeda bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.
While accused of 285 counts of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy, he was only convicted by a jury of one count of conspiring to damage or destroy U.S. property. Ghailani will face a minimum of 20 years in prison and possibly the maximum life in prison.
"Yesterday's acquittal in a federal court ... is all the proof we need that the administration's approach to prosecuting terrorists has been deeply misguided and indeed potentially harmful as a matter of national security," Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor.
The case was widely considered a test case for President Barack Obama's policy of prosecuting key terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison in traditional U.S. criminal courts rather than special military commissions.
Republicans and some of Obama's fellow Democrats have demanded that terrorism suspects held at the island military prison be prosecuted in military tribunals because they are "enemy combatants" who had attacked or plotted against the United States.
Democratic Senator Jim Webb also said that the verdict showed that those charged with crimes of war should not be prosecuted in federal courts but in military trials.
The military commissions balance "robust procedural and substantive rights for the defendants, including prohibiting the introduction of evidence obtained through torture, against the reality that these are not common criminals but violators of the law of war," Webb said.
But the Justice Department said the conviction of Ghailani and a 20-plus year prison sentence was proof that the federal courts could handle such cases and that the Obama administration would continue pursuing cases in both federal and military courts.
"We're going to continue to work through these cases, we're going to bring them to trial in federal courts and military commissions where appropriate ... to obtain justice for victims," department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.
He declined to comment on what would happen with cases put on hold, including against the self-professed mastermind of the September 11 attacks Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The White House had to halt a planned criminal trial in New York amid criticism that he should be prosecuted in a military trial.
Few expect that Mohammed will be tried in a federal court and Republicans gaining control of the House of Representatives could also complicate the administration's attempts to prosecute terrorism cases in federal court.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham renewed his call for a deal with the White House on a comprehensive approach over how to prosecute terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo prison and those detained in the future.
"We need a breakthrough pretty quickly, I think we're on borrowed time," Graham told reporters after speaking at the Justice Department.
He said he has discussed a hybrid system with Attorney General Eric Holder that would allow some criminal trials of some terrorism suspects but military trials should be pursued for major figures, including Mohammed.
"When it comes to KSM (Mohammed), if he's not an enemy combatant, then who would be?" Graham said.
(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, editing by Bill Trott and Philip Barbara)