Ahmed Abu Khattala has been charged with three counts of involvement in the September 2012 attacks on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi. Libya that killed four Americans. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)
Dana Milbank
Opinion writer July 2

Justice is blind, and for about 10 minutes Wednesday she was also deaf and mute.

Ahmed Abu Khattala, alleged mastermind of the Benghazi attacks, took his place at the defense table for his detention hearing and put on his headset. But as soon as proceedings began, the accused terrorist let it be known that he wasn’t hearing the English-to-Arabic translation.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“One, two, one, two,” attempted the interpreter, a small man with bushy eyebrows who sat at a table behind Abu Khattala’s.

“Are you speaking English?” the public defender, Michelle Peterson, asked the interpreter.

“I’m speaking Arabic,” the interpreter answered, in English.


This undated file image obtained from Facebook shows Ahmed Abu Khattala. (AP)

A clerk walked over to investigate. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson’s face tightened into a perturbed grin. “We will proceed as soon as this problem is resolved,” she said.

For the next several minutes, lawyers, clerks, interpreter and Libyan militant fiddled with the audio. There was much head-shaking and pressing of buttons on the translation console. “Ms. Peterson, turn his headset the other way. . . . It’s too loud. . . . One, two, one, two. . . . It only gets Channel 2. . . . Let me try it my way. . . . One, two, three, one, two, three.”

The judge’s assistant picked up a telephone. “Angelise,” she said, “can you come to Courtroom 4? We may need a little help with the interpreting equipment.”

Those who favored sending Abu Khattala to Gitmo will perhaps think the translation trouble proves their point. But Wednesday’s proceedings at the U.S. District Court — the early stages of the biggest terrorism case to be tried in the capital — also showed what is right about civilian courts.

The accused could see that he was represented by a legal team — Peterson and her assistant, also a woman — that vigorously challenged the government’s case. He could hear the judge making sure he understood his rights, and prosecutors assuring the judge they would share the evidence against Abu Khattala with the defense. As important, the world could see (or learn from those in the courtroom, broadcasting via five satellite trucks parked outside the courthouse) that the prisoner was treated with dignity: He sat unshackled, and, through his lawyer, he entered a request for a halal diet and an ­Arabic-language Koran.

It was far better treatment than was given the four Americans killed in the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks Abu Khattala allegedly coordinated.

Doors were bolted at the court’s main entrance on Constitution Avenue, just a few blocks from the Capitol. Two men carrying both pistols and machine guns patrolled near the statue of Sir William Blackstone. The open-to-the-public session was jammed — thanks to the many law-firm interns and clerks who had come as terror-trial tourists — and some spectators were sent to an overflow room.

Abu Khattala, led in by two beefy marshals in business suits, was in a green jumpsuit with fading letters spelling “PRISONER” on the back. His wild gray hair and equally unruly beard made him look two decades older than his 43 years. Abu Khattala looked disoriented in his first appearance over the weekend, but this time he seemed to be following the proceedings closely.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiLorenzo, one of five people at the prosecution table, recalled the tragic events of 2012. “They discharged their weapons” and “set fire to the building,” he said, and “this led to the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and information officer Sean Smith.” DiLorenzo then described the mortar attack that killed Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.

DiLorenzo noted, with a bit of understatement, that “the history and character of the defendant” — commander of an armed militia that is designated a terrorist organization — weighed against releasing him.

Peterson didn’t argue otherwise. “We concede that his detention is appropriate at this time,” she said. But Peterson, wearing a bright pink jacket over a floral dress, preceded her concession with a spirited defense of her client. She said there is “an utter lack of evidence of Mr. Khattala’s involvement” in the attacks and complained about the lack of discovery.

Peterson even tried to defend Abu Khattala’s character. “He spent a decade fighting the Gaddafi regime and spent numerous years in prison” as a consequence, she said. In response to prosecutors’ claims that Abu Khattala was found armed, she said it’s “a bit of a stretch” to suggest that “someone armed in Libya is akin to someone armed in D.C.” And she said prosecutors should not be allowed to “taint” Abu Khattala as “dangerous” in the eyes of prospective jurors.

It was more than the accused terrorist deserves, perhaps, but exactly what he’s entitled to in the American justice system. Even the audio worked, in the end. As Abu Khattala rose to be escorted from the courtroom, one of the marshals reminded him that he first needed to remove his headset.

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