Benghazi suspect pleads not guilty in U.S. court

WASHINGTON — The Libyan militant accused of masterminding the deadly Benghazi attacks that have become a flash point in U.S. politics appeared briefly for the first time in an American courtroom, pleading not guilty Saturday to a terrorism-related charge nearly two weeks after he was captured by U.S. commandos.

In a 10-minute hearing held amid tight security, 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.

Abu Khattala became the most recent foreign terror suspect to be prosecuted in American courts, a forum the Obama administration contends is both fairer and more efficient than the military tribunal process used at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The case was being tried in Washington, despite concerns from Republicans in Congress who say he should not be entitled to the protections of the U.S. legal system.

In the hours before Saturday's hearing, federal marshals wearing bulletproof vests and holding machine guns roamed the streets outside the courthouse, about a mile from the White House.

At the hearing, the first two rows of the courtroom were filled with prosecutors and plainclothes FBI agents. Among the prosecutors was the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald Machen, who rarely attends trials, let alone arraignments.

A grand jury indictment handed up under seal Thursday and 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 Christopher 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.

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.

He looked impassively at U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola for most of the hearing. Abu Khattala's court-appointed lawyer, Michelle Peterson, entered the not guilty plea. Facciola ordered the defendant's continued detention, but the judge did not say where Abu Khattala would be held.

The U.S. Marshals Service said it had taken custody of Abu Khattala, who was confined to a detention facility in the region.

U.S. forces captured Abu Khattala in Libya two weeks ago, marking the first breakthrough in the investigation. Officials had been questioning Abu Khattala aboard a Navy ship that transported him to the United States. He was flown early Saturday by military helicopter from a Navy ship to a National Park Service landing pad in the city's Anacostia neighborhood, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the transfer publicly and spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The violence in Libya on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks quickly became a political controversy at home.

Republicans accused the White House, as the 2012 presidential election neared, of intentionally misleading the public about what prompted the attacks. The White House said Republicans were politicizing a national tragedy.

Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

Benghazi suspect pleads not guilty in U.S. court 06/29/14 [Last modified: Sunday, June 29, 2014 12:07am]

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