NEW YORK — Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, former al-Qaida spokesman and a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, pleaded not guilty in New York Friday to U.S. terror charges that he conspired to kill Americans by urging others to support al-Qaida and swear an oath of allegiance to bin Laden, its leader.
Judge Lewis Kaplan ordered another hearing for Abu Ghaith, who is also charged with speaking on behalf of al-Qaida, on April 8, when the judge said he hoped to set a trial date.
During Abu Ghaith’s first court appearance, prosecutor John Cronan said the evidence against the defendant includes an extensive statement that Abu Ghaith made after his arrest. The prosecutor did not provide further details about the statement, but he said other evidence will include transcripts of audio tapes translated from Arabic to English.
Abu Ghaith was brought into the courtroom with his hands cuffed behind his back. A court officer removed the handcuffs until the 15-minute hearing was concluded and Abu Ghaith was escorted from the courtroom.
Judge Kaplan advised Abu Ghaith of his rights under U.S. law, including his right to remain silent and his right to a court-appointed attorney if he could not afford one. Abu Ghaith said he could not afford his own lawyer, and the judge appointed three attorneys, including Philip Weinstein, who told the judge he had already met with the accused terrorist several times before the hearing.
Abu Ghaith was reportedly arrested in Turkey, then brought to Jordan where he was taken into custody by U.S. officials. He was flown to the New York City area, according to prosecutors, on March 1.
The announcement by the United States that Abu Ghaith would appear in a U.S. court was quickly challenged by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who argued that Abu Ghaith should have been taken to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba for questioning.
“This administration seems adverse to the idea of treating future captures like this as enemy combatants," said Graham. "By taking that option off the table, you’re putting people like this into federal court, giving them the same constitutional rights as an American citizen, but more than anything else you’re destroying the ability to hold them under the law of war for intelligence-gathering purposes.”
In contrast, Human Rights Watch spokesperson Laura Pitter says the United States has successfully prosecuted hundreds of terrorism cases in federal courts and they should prosecute this one in federal court as well.
“The federal courts have been trying these cases for years," she said. "It’s the correct venue for terrorism cases and the administration should continue to try the terrorism cases in federal court. I think there is some sort of gut reaction from some people that they feel as though they need to be treated differently, but in the United States, even the worst of the worst are tried in a fair system, and that system is the U.S. federal court system.”
Abu Ghaith is married to bin Laden's daughter, Fatima. He is the closest relative of bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people, to face trial in the U.S.
In the indictment against him, the U.S. accuses Abu Ghaith of celebrating the 2001 attacks in videos and on Internet sites, while warning that al-Qaida was entitled to kill millions more Americans. Prosecutors say that on the day after the attacks, he urged the "nation of Islam" to war against Jews, Christians and Americans.
A Turkish newspaper reported that Abu Ghaith was seized at a luxury hotel in the capital, Ankara. Sources said he was then deported to Jordan, where U.S. intelligence agents took him into custody. Turkish officials refused to comment on the report.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the arrest shows U.S. resolve to bring to justice those responsible for the 2001 attacks.
If convicted of the U.S. charges, Abu Ghaith could face life imprisonment.