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By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who for five years has advocated trying terrorism suspects in U.S. civilian court only to be slapped down by Congress, took a victory lap in New York on Tuesday, proclaiming that last week’s conviction of Sulaiman abu Ghaith in Manhattan federal court proves he was right all along.

“This verdict has proven beyond any doubt that proceedings such as these can safely occur in the city I am proud to call home, as in other locations across our nation,” Holder, a native New Yorker, said after meeting with the lawyers who prosecuted abu Ghaith.

Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and spokesman, was convicted in U.S. District Court of conspiring to kill Americans and faces a possible life sentence.

Holder’s first years in office were plagued by controversy over the decision to move Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his alleged accomplices in the Sept. 11 conspiracy from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to face trial in New York federal court.

Republicans pounced on the plan as a threat to security and a huge expense, and soon were joined by New York Democrats. But Holder stubbornly refused to yield until Congress in January 2011 made it illegal to transfer prisoners from Guantanamo to the U.S.

In recent months he has brought up the issue repeatedly, noting that there has been little progress in getting Mohammed to trial before a military commission at Guantanamo. Another in a series of pretrial hearings is scheduled in two weeks.

“If we had been allowed to follow the decision that I made, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his confederates would be on death row right now instead of awaiting trial in a military commission,” Holder said at the University of Virginia in February. “I was right on that one and I think right on a number of other things that I’ve been criticized for.”

Holder said Tuesday that the abu Ghaith verdict “has vindicated the government’s approach to terrorism-related cases.” He sounded a defiant note, saying the Justice Department will continue to rely on the civilian system.

“Abu Ghaith was not the first individual to be convicted in a federal court for his role in terrorist activities, and he will not be the last,” Holder said.

Abu Ghaith’s civilian trial was possible because he was never in Guantanamo. After his arrest in Jordan, he was flown directly to New York.

Although Holder said he hoped the verdict had put the debate to rest, his chief congressional critics have not changed their positions.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), said he was pleased by the conviction but worried that opportunities to gather intelligence had been lost by trying him in civilian courts.

“If the Obama administration continues down this road of criminalizing the war against radical Islam, we will continue to lose valuable intelligence and one day will pay a heavy price,” Graham said in a statement. “Intelligence is the key to disrupting and stopping future plots against our nation and our allies.”

Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, said in an interview that if the Sept. 11 suspects had been tried in New York, “these cases would have been over a long time ago, and the families (of the victims) would have closure and justice would have done its job.”

Instead, he said, the military prosecutions are “on a slow boat to China, still inching towards trial on the merits.”

Photo: ryanjreilly/Flickr

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