By Pete Yost and Eric Tucker, AP
WASHINGTON–The Libyan militant accused of masterminding the deadly 2012 Benghazi attacks that have become a dramatic issue in U.S. politics appeared briefly for the first time in an American courtroom, pleading not guilty to a terrorism-related charge nearly two weeks after he was captured by special forces.
In a 10-minute hearing held amid tight security Saturday, 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 made public Saturday said Abu Khattala participated in a conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2012, that killed U.S. 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.
U.S. special forces captured Abu Khattala in Libya two weeks ago, marking the first breakthrough in the investigation. Officials had been questioning him aboard a Navy ship that transported him to the United States.
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 U.S. detention facility 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 via headphones to a translation of the proceedings. He wore a two-piece black track suit, had a beard and long curly hair, both mostly gray, and kept his hands, which were not handcuffed, behind his back.
His court-appointed lawyer, Michelle Peterson, entered the not guilty plea. The judge ordered Abu Khattala’s continued detention but did not say where he would be held.
The U.S. Marshals Service said it had taken custody of Abu Khattalah, who now was confined to a detention facility in the capital region.
A U.S. official said Abu Khattala had been advised of his rights to an attorney, to remain silent and other rights at some point during his trip. The official said Abu Khattala continued talking after that. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. The nature of those conversations wasn’t immediately clear.
A criminal complaint filed last year and unsealed after Abu Khattala’s capture charged him with terror-related crimes. They included killing a person during an attack on a federal facility. A new, single-count indictment will likely be superseded by additional charges, prosecutors say.