The man charged with leading the September 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans asked a federal judge Monday to return him to Libya, alleging that his seizure and interrogation by American authorities for 13 days aboard a U.S. Navy vessel without a lawyer present “outrageously” violated U.S. constitutional standards for due process.
The request came in the first substantive motions by Libyan terrorism suspect Ahmed Abu Khattala, who pleaded not guilty last fall to charges including murder, conspiracy and destroying a U.S. facility in the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
In pleadings before U.S. District Judge Christopher R. Cooper of the District, Abu Khattala’s attorneys challenged the hybrid military-civilian policies adopted by U.S. officials to wring valuable intelligence from terrorism suspects while preserving the ability to try them in civilian courts. The defense urged the federal courts not to legitimize what it called the “well-planned lawlessness . . . [of his] arrest, abduction and interrogation.”
“Due process does not ‘afford brutality the cloak of law,’ ” wrote lawyers with the federal public defender’s office and the Lewis Baach law firm of the District and Richard Jasper of New York.
They added: “The government illegally deployed the military to violate the sovereignty of Libya and make an arrest of Mr. Abu Khatallah [sic], and then held him captive on a military ship — without the protection of and in spite of constitutional guarantees — for the explicit purpose of illegally interrogating him for almost two weeks.”
Bill Miller, a spokesman for Vincent H. Cohen Jr., the acting U.S. attorney for the District, declined to comment beyond the prosecution’s court filings.
Abu Khattala was charged by sealed complaint in July 2013 and formally indicted in June 2014. The U.S. government has called him the ringleader of the Benghazi attacks and commander of the Ubaydah Bin Jarrah militia, which sought to establish Islamic law in Libya.
Facing a Monday deadline to challenge the legal foundations of the charges while he waits for the government to turn over classified documents, Abu Khattala asked the court to dismiss as vague, overbroad or outside of federal jurisdiction all but one of 18 counts in a superseding October indictment that included charges eligible for the death penalty.
The defendant left one count unchallenged — murder of an internationally protected person — but asked for permission to file another challenge once the government decides whether to seek Abu Khattala’s execution.
Specifically, Abu Khattala’s defense criticized the Obama administration’s blending of military and civilian practices for capturing and detaining alleged foreign militants, which included, in his case, his capture by U.S. Special Forces after being lured to a villa south of Benghazi and his transport to the United States aboard the USS New York amphibious transport vessel.
There, his attorneys alleged, Abu Khattala was held in military custody and interrogated for five days by a High Value Detainee Interrogation Group composed of U.S. military and intelligence and law enforcement officials. Information obtained by such efforts may further intelligence-gathering but cannot be admitted as evidence.
At that point, a second group of FBI agents told Abu Khattala that he was under arrest and read him his Miranda rights; the defendant requested a lawyer then. Despite planning his seizure for a year, the government did not have a lawyer available for him, and the FBI agents interrogated Abu Khattala for seven more days, his lawyers said.
The blend of military and civilian detention and interrogation practices has drawn criticism in the past, from Congress — where Republicans have proposed requiring the administration to transfer all captured terrorism suspects to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for indefinite detention or trial by military tribunals — and civil rights activists.
But supporters say such tactics can work. Somali citizen Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, picked up off the coast of Somalia in 2011, was held at sea and interrogated for months before being advised of his rights. He pleaded guilty in federal court to charges, including providing material support for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In January, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Anas al-Libi, died of liver cancer shortly before his trial in New York City was scheduled. Ruqai was captured in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, in a U.S. military and FBI operation and was detained at sea until he fell ill and was brought to the United States for treatment. He was accused of involvement in the 1998 al-
Qaeda bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.