Benghazi ‘plotter’ denies charges
Accused flown from warship to court
Washington – The Libyan militant accused of masterminding the deadly 2012 Benghazi attacks that have become a flashpoint in US politics has appeared briefly for the first time in an American courtroom.
He pleaded not guilty yesterday to a terrorism-related charge nearly two weeks after he was captured by special forces.
In a 10-minute hearing held amid tight security, Ahmed Abu Khattala spoke just two words, both in Arabic. He replied ‘‘yes’’ when asked to swear to tell the truth and ‘‘no’’ when asked if he was having trouble understanding the proceeding.
A grand jury indictment handed up under seal on Friday and made public yesterday said Abu Khattala took part in a conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists in the attacks of September 11, 2012, that killed US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
That crime is punishable by up to life in prison. The government said it soon would file more charges against Abu Khattala.
US special forces captured him in Libya two weeks ago, marking the first breakthrough in the investigation. Officials had questioned Abu Khattala on a navy ship that transported him to the US.
The prosecution reflects the Obama Administration’s stated position of trying suspected terrorists in the American criminal justice system even as Republicans call for Abu Khattala and others to be held at the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Critics say suspected terrorists don’t deserve the legal protections afforded by the American court. The administration considers the civilian justice system fairer and more efficient.
During his initial court appearance, the defendant listened through headphones to a translation of the proceedings. He had a beard and long curly hair, both mostly gray, and kept his hands, which were not handcuffed, behind his back. He wore a two-piece black tracksuit.
He looked impassively at Judge John Facciola for most of the hearing. Abu Khattala’s court-appointed lawyer, Michele Peterson, entered the not guilty plea. Facciola ordered the defendant’s continued detention, but the judge did not say where he would be held.
The US Marshals Service said it had taken custody of Abu Khattala, who now was confined to a detention centre in the Washington region, ending a harried day for the Libyan.
Early yesterday he was flown by military helicopter from the navy ship to a National Park Service landing pad in Washington, according to a US official.
The violence in Libya on the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon quickly became a political controversy at home.
Republicans accused the White House, as the 2012 presidential election neared, of intentionally misleading the public about what prompted the attacks. The White House said Republicans were politicising a national tragedy.
Abu Khattala was a prominent figure in Benghazi’s circles of extremists. He was popular among young radicals and lived openly in the eastern Libyan city, spotted at cafes and other public places, even after the Obama Administration publicly named him as a suspect.
He is accused of being a member of the Ansar al-Shariah group, the powerful Islamic militia that the US believes was behind the attack.
Harried day: Ahmed Abu Khattala appears in a Washington courtroom, hours after arriving in the United States.