A Libyan man snatched by U.S. Special Operations forces outside his home in Tripoli this month was brought to the United States over the weekend, U.S. officials said Monday, explaining that a chronic medical condition prevented them from keeping him detained aboard a Navy ship any longer.
Lawmakers and national security experts had anticipated that Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, who is charged in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, would be held at sea for a lengthy period while a senior team of U.S. interrogators attempted to debrief him.
Ruqai needed specialized medical treatment that was unavailable aboard the USS San Antonio, the warship where he was being questioned, a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
“He has several chronic, preexisting health conditions,” the U.S. official said. “The extent only became clear after his capture.”
Ruqai’s wife told CNN in an interview that her husband, who was captured Oct. 5, is infected with hepatitis C, which damages the liver.
The U.S. official said Ruqai was undergoing a medical evaluation in the New York area and could be arraigned as early as Tuesday if he is discharged in time. The official did not provide details about the severity of Ruqai’s problems.
Ruqai’s arrival in the United States cut short a debate over how long the government could reasonably keep him at sea and whether it should prosecute him in federal court.
Some lawmakers argued that a lengthy detention overseas under the laws of war was legitimate and represented the best chance of obtaining information from Ruqai about the evolution of al-Qaeda and new militant groups in North Africa. They suggested that he be sent to the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, although the Obama administration has pledged not to send new detainees to the facility, which it wants to close.
Defense lawyers and constitutional rights activists, meanwhile, pressed for a speedy arraignment. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, applauded the decision to formally arrest and prosecute Ruqai. He said that sending Ruqai to Guantanamo would have been “unnecessary and unwise.”
“The United States is the most powerful nation in the world, and we have a justice system that is second to none,” Leahy said in a statement Monday. “We are not afraid of terrorists, nor are we afraid to bring them to justice in our courts.”
Spokesmen for the Pentagon and the Justice Department declined to say whether Ruqai, also known as Anas al-Libi, had been cooperative with interrogators. The Obama administration dispatched the FBI-led High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group to the USS San Antonio to question Ruqai.
U.S interrogators have more latitude to hold and question terrorism suspects under the laws of war before they are formally arrested, transferred into the civilian court system, and advised of their right to consult a lawyer and right against self-incrimination.
Ruqai arrived Saturday in New York, where he was remanded to the custody of federal law enforcement officers. He was indicted more than a decade ago in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The indictment, filed in the Southern District of New York, accuses Ruqai of conducting surveillance of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and helping to develop photos that were later used to plan a massive truck bombing. The blast killed more than 200 people.
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. He lived in Britain during the late 1990s after obtaining political asylum there. Ruqai later spent several years in Iran before returning to his native Libya in 2011 to participate in the revolt against Moammar Gaddafi.
Four of Ruqai’s co-defendants were convicted of carrying out the embassy bombings in a 2001 trial in New York. All were sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of two former al-Qaeda members who became U.S. informants.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to say Monday whether the two witnesses remain in the United States or whether they would be available to testify against Ruqai.
Last week, the federal public defender’s office in New York asked a federal judge to appoint a lawyer for Ruqai, saying that there was no “lawful basis for the delay in his appearance and the appointment of counsel.”
Prosecutors opposed that request, saying that public defenders are appointed only after criminal defendants have appeared in court and demonstrated that they cannot hire one.
U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan sided with the government, saying he could not appoint a lawyer while it remained unclear whether the government would prosecute Ruqai.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.