NEW YORK— Libyan Al-Qaida suspect Abu Anas al-Libi pleaded not guilty in a New York court on charges linking him to the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.
Al-Libi was snatched off a street in Tripoli by American special forces October 5, and interrogated on an U.S. Navy ship before he was brought to New York a few days ago.
Al-Libi, whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, has long been under federal indictment for allegedly planning the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He also is charged with conspiring with Osama bin Laden to attack U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia.
Shuffling into a heavily guarded courtroom, the gray-bearded al-Libi appeared weak and looked older than his 49 years. Through an Arabic interpreter he entered a plea of “not guilty” and requested a court-appointed public defender because he cannot afford a private attorney.
News reports say al-Libi is suffering from hepatitis, and that his condition worsened aboard the ship when he stopped eating. The judge signed a medical order at the request of attorneys, but no details were released.
New York criminal lawyer Ron Kuby, who has defended other terror suspects, noted the government has successfully tried five defendants accused in the embassy bombings.
“So the government’s path to conviction is smooth and clear and well-traveled, assuming they have evidence against al-Libi that’s comparable to the evidence against others,” said Kuby.
But Kuby said the weeklong interrogation of al-Libi aboard the warship could damage the case - because of rules requiring that someone arrested on a federal criminal indictment be brought before a judge without delay.
“The reason is the American observation of regimes where people are simply arrested and held incommunicado for protracted periods of time, is considered inconsistent with liberty and a society that values human rights,” said Kuby.
Administration officials maintain that the seizure and interrogation did not constitute a formal arrest, and that al-Libi was not officially put under arrest until October 12.
One of the last
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, said al-Libi is one of the last of the suspects to face justice for the 1998 bombings. Twenty-one were indicted in the case.
“And there are only four outstanding who haven’t been killed or captured, so it brings more closure to that case, which is a central case,” said Greenberg.
The greater significance, she said, is that all the trials so far have been in federal court.
“So it creates that narrative that our courts can try individuals who have attacked the United States, caused deaths, and can be brought to justice here in our court system and not in a military tribunal,” added Greenberg.
In contrast, more than 150 foreign nationals once suspected of terrorism have been held for years in a prison on the U.S. Navy's Guantanamo Bay base. About half have been cleared of suspicion. A handful of others have been tried through military tribunals, but many have neither been brought to trial or released.
Al-Libi reportedly was a computer expert and top aide to Osama bin Laden in the early years of al-Qaida. In Libya, however, members of his family deny that he is an al-Qaida member.