The man accused of leading the 2012 attack on American facilities in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in four American deaths, can’t contest being held in jail until the U.S. provides the evidence against him, his lawyer said.
“We would concede that his detention is appropriate at this time,” the attorney for Ahmed Abu Khatallah, public defender Michelle Peterson, said today at a hearing in federal court in Washington.
Khatallah sat impassively throughout the hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson, listening to a translation of the proceedings on earphones. The alleged militia commander has a gray beard that reaches his chest and was dressed in a dark green, short-sleeve prison coverall. He didn’t address the court.
Peterson said prosecutors have failed to share information in time to enable Khatallah to challenge his detention, leaving her “to try to glean from press reports what the government’s evidence is.” Her client reserves the right to seek bail once he has gotten to review the government’s case, she said.
Prosecutors repeated arguments made in a court filing yesterday that Khatallah should remain in custody because he poses a danger to others.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiLorenzo told Robinson that the government has begun sharing its evidence with Khatallah’s attorneys, including unspecified “video clips” and will provide more this week.
Khatallah, who is about 43, is charged with conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists resulting in death, a crime that carries a possible life sentence.
He was named a “specially designated global terrorist” by the U.S. State Department in January and was described at the time as a senior leader of Ansar Al Sharia in Benghazi, which the U.S. designated as a terrorist group.
Khatallah had a loaded firearm when he was captured, and subsequently “gave voluntary statements corroborating key facts” in the case against him, according to yesterday’s filing, which DiLorenzo summarized in court today.
In the days before the Sept. 11 and 12, 2012, attacks on the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, Khatallah “voiced concern and opposition to the presence of the American facility,” and among at least 20 armed men who breached the gates of the property several were “known associates of the defendant,” according to the filing.
After U.S. personnel evacuated the area, Khatallah “entered the compound and supervised the exploitation of material from the scene,” prosecutors wrote.
Peterson dismissed much of the filing as “conclusory statements about the government’s allegations.”
An example, she said, is that carrying a gun shouldn’t be considered unusual because Libya has been in a state of turmoil since the fall of Moammar Gaddafi, Peterson said.
Based in the filing, Khatallah’s link to the attack appears to be that he knew people involved in it, “not that he was involved himself,” Peterson said.
The attack killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens; Sean Smith, a State Department official; and two Central Intelligence Agency contractors, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
Khatallah’s case is expected to pose a renewed test of President Barack Obama’s resolve to prosecute terrorism suspects in civilian courts. Throughout his tenure, he has been criticized by Republicans for choosing to try some alleged terrorists in federal court rather than military tribunals.
Republicans also have conducted multiple investigations of security precautions in Libya and of the Obama adminstration’s explanations of what preceded the Benghazi violence.
Those questions might linger as a campaign issue if Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attack, seeks to be the Democrats’ candidate for president in 2016.
Khatallah was captured in a raid by U.S. special operations forces near Benghazi. Obama ruled out sending him to the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, reopening the debate over what to do with militants captured overseas.
Charges were lodged against Khatallah in secret last year in a criminal complaint unsealed last month. They were supplanted by the conspiracy charge in a June 26 indictment.
Khatallah was commander of the Obaidah Ibn Al Jarrah, “an extremist brigade that was absorbed into Ansar Al Sharia” after the 2011 Libyan revolution, according to yesterday’s prosecution filing.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said the U.S. is continuing to look for co-conspirators and may revise charges against Khatallah.
Khatallah’s case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper, who joined the court in March after being appointed by Obama and unanimously confirmed by the Senate.
Cooper previously spent more than a decade as a litigator, most recently at Baker Botts LLP and Covington & Burling LLP, where he specialized in defending clients in white-collar criminal cases.
Cooper was a law clerk to Abner Mikva, a retired chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington and a mentor to Obama.
The case is U.S. v. Khatallah, 14-cr-00141, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).
To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Zajac in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org