Dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and unshackled, the Libyan militia leader and alleged mastermind behind the deadly 2012 Benghazi attack appears in a U.S. District Court and pleads not guilty to terror charges. Newslook
WASHINGTON — Nearly two weeks after his capture in Libya, a key suspect in the 2012 deadly attack on the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi pleaded not guilty to criminal charges during his first federal court appearance Saturday.
Ahmed Abu Khatallah, an alleged senior leader of the Benghazi branch of the terror group Ansar al-Sharia, had been detained and questioned on a U.S. warship and was being transported to be prosecuted in a D.C. federal court, where security was heightened Saturday.
Khatallah — who faces criminal charges in the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans — appeared in court Saturday afternoon.
Wearing a dark, hooded sweatshirt, dark pants and sandals, he stood with his hands clasped behind his back as U.S. Magistrate John Facciola slowly recited the charges against him, which include conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists, knowing that the material would be used in a deadly attack on a U.S. facility.
Looking haggard with a long gray beard and bushy mane of gray hair, he entered a plea of not guilty through his court-appointed public defender, Michelle Peterson.
In a voice barely audible in the second-floor courtroom, Khatallah identified himself by name. And when asked whether he understood his interpreter, he responded, “Yes.”
The 43-year-old suspect spoke no more during the hearing, which lasted less than 10 minutes. He showed no emotion and gazed toward the bench as a spare courtroom gallery — a mix of journalists, FBI agents, lawyers and a lone tourist — looked on.
A criminal complaint filed in Washington accused Khatallah of “killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility involving the use of a firearm and dangerous weapon.” It charged him with “providing, attempting and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, resulting in death” at Benghazi.
“Now that Ahmed Abu Khatallah has arrived in the United States, he will face the full weight of our justice system,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “We will prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant’s alleged role in the attack that killed four brave Americans in Benghazi.”
FBI Director James Comey, whose agents participated in the capture, said Khatallah’s appearance marked “a major step forward in our ongoing investigation.”
The charges currently lodged against Khatallah carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. But federal prosecutors said they were preparing additional charges that could subject the Libyan suspect to a possible death penalty.
A detention hearing has been set for Wednesday.
Shortly after the hearing was concluded, Khatallah was whisked from the courthouse in a loud motorcade of black SUVs, their lights and sirens blaring.
Earlier Saturday, Khatallah was transported from the Navy vessel by helicopter and into law enforcement custody, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to comment publicly on the matter.
Khatallah’s transfer for trial in the federal court system has revived the debate over the proper venue — civilian court or military tribunals — for the prosecution of terror suspects.
Holder has long argued that the federal courts, where hundreds of terror cases have been prosecuted since 9/11, have proven more than capable. But some lawmakers continue to assert that such defendants should be referred to the military custody for prolonged interrogation and eventual prosecution.
“Ahmed Abu Khatallah is a ‘specially designated global terrorist’ who is a leader of a designated foreign terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of four Americans,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said Saturday. “I have serious concerns.”
Authorities said Khatallah had become more careful in recent months to conceal his movements, perhaps related to last fall’s capture of alleged al-Qaeda operative Anas al-Libi in Tripoli. American forces seized Khatallah on June 15 just south of Benghazi in an operation that also involved U.S. law enforcement officials.
Khatallah is described by some terror analysts as a man stridently anti-American who has been aligned with the Ansar al-Shariah militia group, suspected in the consulate attack.
However, he has repeatedly denied involvement in the attacks in interviews with several news organizations and appeared content to live in the open in the weeks after the attacks, even though he was being eyed as a target.
“I am a Libyan citizen, and the American government has nothing to do with me,” Khatallah told the Associated Press last year. “I am in my city, having a normal life and have no troubles, and if they have an inquiry to make, they should get in touch with Libyan authorities.”
Saturday afternoon, at the E.Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse, where Khatallah made his first appearance, security was noticeably bolstered. Heavily armed U.S. marshals were posted around the property just a short distance from the Capitol. Patrol vehicles, meanwhile, made regular passes on the perimeter as curious tourists looked on from Constitution Avenue.
Khatallah’s indictment could be the first of several.
“Ahmed Abu Khatallah’s capture and his appearance in court today were critical steps toward bringing him to justice for his role in the terrorist attacks on our diplomatic facilities in Benghazi,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin said in a statement. “We will not rest in our pursuit of the others who attacked our facilities and killed the four courageous Americans who perished that day.”
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