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Americas

Benghazi attack suspect pleads not guilty in US court

© Afp

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-06-29

The Libyan militia leader charged over the deadly attack on the US mission in Benghazi pleaded not guilty in a US court on Saturday. Ahmed Abu Khatallah has been indicted on a single charge of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.

A federal grand jury indicted Ahmed Abu Khatallah in a brief Saturday session on a single charge of conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists in connection with the September 11, 2012 attacks on the US consulate that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Abu Khatallah was flown to Washington by helicopter shortly after sunrise from the US Navy warship where he was being held and interrogated since his high-profile capture by US forces two weeks ago, a law enforcement official told AFP.

The State Department has identified Abu Khatallah as a senior leader of Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan group responsible for a spate of attacks and assassinations.

Abu Khatallah, believed to be 43 and also known as Ahmed Mukatallah, listened to the court proceedings through an interpreter and raised his right hand before public defender Shelli Peterson entered a "not guilty" plea on his behalf.

Court sketches showed the suspect wearing a dark tracksuit and sporting a long, dark gray beard with curly hair. He was not handcuffed.

The lead prosecutor in the case has warned that the Justice Department could bring additional charges as the investigation into the assault continues.

"Right now, the right move was to not show all your cards at once," a senior law enforcement official explained.

A CIA annex was also targeted in the attacks, which saw gunmen storm the US mission in Benghazi and set it on fire. The incident shocked Washington and quickly became a highly charged political issue.

Abu Khatallah is due back in court, which is located just a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the White House, on Wednesday for a detention hearing and again on July 8 for a status hearing.

US commandos captured him two weeks ago in a covert raid on Libyan soil.

Libya accused Washington of violating its sovereignty, though it had failed to fulfill an outstanding arrest warrant against Abu Khatallah because of the tense security situation in the flashpoint eastern city of Benghazi.

Abu Khatallah had often been seen in public and defiantly spoke with reporters last year at a luxury hotel in Benghazi.

US officials have dismissed suggestions that the suspect was "hiding in plain sight", or that the operation to capture him could have been conducted much sooner.

The raid represented a victory for President Barack Obama, who has faced intense criticism over his administration's handling of the Benghazi assault and its aftermath.

Civilian courts

The choice of the US District Court in Washington as the venue for Khatallah's court case is also unusual, as most terror suspects tried in the United States since the September 11, 2001, attacks have been tried in federal courts in New York and Alexandria, Virginia.

Some Republicans have criticised the administration's decision to try Khatallah in civilian court rather than at the Guantanamo Bay special military tribunals. Critics say suspected terrorists don't deserve the legal protections afforded by US courts.

But the Obama administration considers the civilian justice system to be fairer and more efficient.

Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte expressed "serious concerns that conducting a rushed interrogation onboard a ship and then turning Khattalah over to our civilian courts risks losing critical intelligence that could lead us to other terrorists or prevent future attacks".

The case against Khatallah relies heavily on accounts from Libyan officials and witnesses who have singled him out as taking part in the assault that day.

But FBI investigators were only able to visit the crime scenes to collect evidence several weeks after the assault due to high security concerns.

FBI Director James Comey hailed Abu Khatallah's capture as a "major step forward" in the investigation, but stressed that the agency's work was not yet done.

"This case remains one of our top priorities and we will continue to pursue all others who participated in this brazen attack on our citizens and our country," he said.

The Benghazi attack raised questions about security at US diplomatic facilities worldwide and the accuracy of US intelligence on militant threats.

Republicans charged that the White House failed to respond decisively and then tried to hide some facts in the grisly episode.

The Obama administration, in turn, has accused critics of unnecessarily politicising a national tragedy.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

 

Date created : 2014-06-29

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