A man accused of plotting to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington pleaded not guilty Monday during a brief hearing before a federal judge in New York.
Manssor Arbabsiar stood before Judge John Keenan. In answer to a clerk’s question - "How do you plead?" - he replied, "Not guilty." Those were his only words in court during the five-minute arraignment.
The 56-year-old Arbabsiar is accused by the government of plotting to murder the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States by setting off explosives in a Washington restaurant. Arbabsiar holds both Iranian and U.S. passports.
Also accused in the assassination plot is Gholam Shakuri, a member of a special operations unit of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Shakuri is still at large. An Iranian spokesman has said the charges against the two men are baseless.
Arbabsiar’s lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, discussed several issues with the judge, including the discovery process in which the defendant can review the evidence that prosecutors will present during the actual trial. Judge Keenan suggested that may take some time because, he said, conversations recorded by the government will have to be translated from Farsi to English.
The judge also suggested there may be challenges to Arbabsiar’s alleged confessions to U.S. law enforcement agents after he was arrested last month at New York’s JFK International Airport. According to the government, he was advised of his rights not to incriminate himself and to have a lawyer present. Arbabsiar allegedly waived those rights and admitted to agents that he had been recruited, funded and directed by men whom he took to be senior officials in the Iranian special operations unit.
Under U.S. law, criminal suspects held by police must be told that they have a right to remain silent. The right was spelled out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966 in a landmark case that bears the name of the defendant, Miranda. Vanessa Antoun, of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says if a suspect is not properly informed of his rights, the court may suppress the confession.
“Defense counsel would want to inquire into the circumstances of how those rights were given, what exact warning was given, possibly the state of mind or other circumstances going on with the suspect at that point. And upon looking into all those inquiries, there might be a basis to challenge the waiver of Miranda rights. So defense counsel would have to look into all those issues and possibly see if there is a basis to claim that the Miranda rights weren’t voluntarily waived or that there was no waiver at all.”
Any defense challenges, Ms. Antoun explains, would be the subject of a ruling before the trial by the presiding judge.
Judge Keenan set the next pre-trial hearing in this case for December 21. The judge said he hoped for a relatively early date for the trial, which is expected to last three to four weeks.