suspect faces U.S. criminal, not military, court
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[June 21, 2014]
By David Ingram and Mark Hosenball
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A
suspected leader of the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya,
captured by U.S. forces and spirited out of the country, can expect to
move quickly through the initial steps of the criminal justice system
within hours of arriving on American soil.
Seized in a raid last Sunday, Libyan militant Ahmed Abu Khatallah
is the suspected leader of a group implicated in the 2012 attack on
a U.S. diplomatic compound and CIA base in Benghazi.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Abu
Khatallah was aboard the USS New York, an amphibious transport ship
traveling toward the United States at normal speed.
Along the way he can expect to be questioned by intelligence experts
and criminal investigators, and then delivered for arraignment to
enter a plea and face questions about bond and the possible
appointment of a public defender.
"This is the way it's going to be. When the U.S. decides they're
going to indict someone abroad, they're going to bring them to the
criminal justice system," not to military prisons as during the
George W. Bush administration, said Karen Greenberg, the director of
Fordham University's Center on National Security. "He’s going to be
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died
in the Benghazi attack. Abu Khatallah is charged with killing a
person on U.S. property, a firearms violation and providing material
support to terrorism.
The charges were filed in July 2013 but kept under a court seal
until Tuesday. He is expected to be formally indicted by a U.S.
The U.S. Justice Department filed the charges against Abu Khatallah
in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., a venue that prosecutors
have only rarely used for criminal cases involving those suspected
The courthouse is three blocks from where Congress meets. The White
House is 12 blocks in the opposite direction. The U.S. Attorney's
Office in Washington has handled the Abu Khatallah investigation and
the case will stay in the U.S. capital, a spokesman said.
Common venues for U.S. terrorism cases have been the federal courts
in New York and in Alexandria, Virginia.
President Barack Obama's administration once thought about using
Washington as a venue to try detainees held at the U.S. prison in
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In the face of public and political objections
to bringing terrorism suspects onto the U.S. mainland, Obama ordered
that the detainees be tried before military commissions in
Judge Royce Lamberth, who in 2009 was chief judge of the U.S.
District Court in Washington, said at the time that the court was
prepared to handle the trials. In a speech to a group of lawyers, he
said domestic U.S. street gangs could be more dangerous than
U.S. prosecutors followed a similar pattern in October after
capturing another accused militant in Libya, Abu Anas al-Liby, and
taking him to New York for trial.
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Also in October, a Tunisian man, Nizar Trabelsi, was extradited to
the United States from Belgium on charges of planning to attack a
NATO air base in 2001 on behalf of al Qaeda. His case is pending in
If officials proceed as they did in the cases of al-Liby and
Trabelsi, then Abu Khatallah would be brought quickly into a federal
courtroom for an initial appearance.
A judge or magistrate would assign him a lawyer if he could not
afford his own. The Federal Public Defender for the District of
Columbia represents Trabelsi.
In the case of al-Liby, a public defender asked to be appointed as
defense lawyer before al-Liby had arrived in the United States. A
federal judge in Manhattan denied the request.
As a non-U.S. national, Abu Khatallah may be advised of his right
under international law to access his consulate or embassy. Libya's
embassy in Washington is located in the Watergate complex of offices
He would be taken to a jail to await further proceedings and a
trial, with his conditions of confinement determined by the judge or
magistrate and by the jail that holds him. His defense lawyer and
prosecutors could contest those conditions, such as the level of
access to mail, a telephone and visitors.
Prosecutors may ask for a protective order barring Abu Khatallah's
defense lawyers from speaking publicly about information the
government considers confidential. Later, defense lawyers might ask
for a change of venue if they thought Abu Khatallah could not get a
fair trial in Washington.
If Abu Khatallah were charged with a crime eligible for the death
penalty, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder would determine whether
prosecutors want to seek it.
(Editing by Howard Goller and Dan Grebler)
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