Libyan terrorism suspect appears in federal court in Manhattan, pleads not guilty

October 15, 2013

A Libyan terrorism suspect appeared in a U.S. courtroom Tuesday for the first time since he was snatched by U.S. Special Operations forces in the Libyan capital a week ago and interrogated on a Navy ship in the Mediterranean.

Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Anas al-Libi, pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges in connection with his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He entered the plea through his attorney in federal court in Manhattan.

Ruqai kept his hands folded in his lap as U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan read the charges, according to news reports. Ruqai, who has a thick gray beard, was handcuffed and taken out of the courtroom after the judge said he had to be detained because he is a flight risk, the news reports said.

An indictment filed in the Southern District of New York more than a decade ago accuses Ruqai of conducting surveillance of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and helping to develop photos that were used to plan a massive truck bombing at the mission. The blast killed more than 200 people. Ruqai had been on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorism suspects; the U.S. government had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

U.S. officials said a chronic preexisting medical condition had prevented them from keeping Ruqai detained any longer aboard the USS San Antonio, where he was taken after he was captured outside his home in Tripoli on Oct. 5. His wife told CNN that Ruqai has hepatitis C, which damages the liver.

The FBI-led High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group had been questioning Ruqai aboard the USS San Antonio. He had answered some questions, but the questioning was cut short when he began refusing food and water, law enforcement officials said.

Ruqai was one of Osama bin Laden’s senior aides during the formative years of al-Qaeda, and he spent time with the late terrorism leader in Sudan and Afghanistan. Four of Ruqai’s co-defendants were convicted in a 2001 trial in New York of carrying out the embassy bombings, and all were sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of two former al-Qaeda members who became U.S. informants.

Justice officials declined to say whether the two witnesses remain in the United States or whether they would be available to testify against Ruqai.

Ruqai’s next scheduled court appearance is on Oct. 22.

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department and criminal justice issues nationwide for The Washington Post, where she has been a reporter for 30 years. Follow her @SariHorwitz.
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