WASHINGTON — An alleged al-Qaida member who was snatched off the streets in Libya and interrogated for a week aboard an American warship pleaded not guilty Tuesday in a deadly 1998 bombing attack — a case that has renewed the debate over how quickly terror suspects should be turned over to the U.S. courts.
Despite calls from Republicans in Congress to send him to Guantanamo Bay for indefinite interrogation, Abu Anas al-Libi became the latest alleged terrorist to face civilian prosecution in federal court in Manhattan, the scene of several such convictions.
Al-Libi, wearing a thick gray beard, looked frail and moved slowly as he was led into the heavily guarded courtroom in handcuffs. An attorney said he had come to court from a New York hospital, where he was treated for three days for hepatitis C and swollen limbs.
The 49-year-old al-Libi was captured by American commandos during an Oct. 5 military raid in Libya and questioned for a week aboard the USS San Antonio.
He was indicted more than a decade ago in the twin 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans.
Known as one of al-Qaida’s early computer experts, he is accused of helping plan and conduct surveillance for the attacks. Al-Libi is believed to have used an early-generation Apple computer to assemble surveillance photographs.
The defendant kept his hands folded on his lap as the judge read the charges in a courtroom secured by about a dozen deputy U.S. marshals. The judge ordered him detained after a federal prosecutor called him a “clear danger.”
Al-Libi, who spoke in Arabic and listened to the proceeding with help from a translator, said he preferred to be known as Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai.
Al-Libi’s family and former associates have denied he was ever a member of al-Qaida.
“The presumption of innocence is not a small technicality here,” his court-appointed attorney, David Patton, said in email sent after the hearing. “In a 150-page indictment, Mr. al-Ruqai is mentioned in a mere three paragraphs relating to conduct in 1993 and 1994 and nothing since. … There is no allegation that he had any connection to al-Qaida after 1994, and he is eager to move forward with the legal process in this case.”
The prosecution in the United States is in keeping with a policy of bringing suspected al-Qaida sympathizers and operatives to civilian courts rather than military tribunals.
The civilian court prosecutions have continued before and after the Obama administration was forced to reverse its plans to prosecute 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and several others in federal court in Manhattan.
New York Republican Rep. Peter King, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday that it was a mistake to stop questioning al-Libi while he was in military custody.
“A lot of people say the federal courts can get these convictions,” King said. “It’s not the convictions I’m really worried about. The real issue is the intelligence. Once he gets a lawyer, he holds the cards.”
He added: “Put it this way: Now he decides whether he will talk.”
Other Republicans said al-Libi didn’t face sufficient questioning aboard the Navy warship and want him sent to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, said providing al-Libi the same rights as Americans is “despicable” and gathering intelligence from him will be harder now.
Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, House Judiciary Committee chairman, said the case “begs the question whether rushing foreign terrorists into U.S. courts is a strategy that is in the best interests of the United States.”
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, several other major terrorism trials were held in New York, including those of blind Egyptian sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and Ramzi Yousef, who was the architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Just weeks before 9/11, four men were convicted in the embassy bombings and were sentenced to life in prison, two of them after a jury rejected the death penalty.