WASHINGTON (AP) — The Libyan militant accused of masterminding the deadly Benghazi attacks that have become a flashpoint in U.S. politics appeared briefly for the first time in an American courtroom on Saturday, pleading not guilty to a terrorism-related charge nearly two weeks after he was captured by military special forces
In a 10-minute hearing held amid tight security, Ahmed Abu Khattala spoke just two words, both in Arabic. He replied "yes" when asked to swear to tell the truth and "no" when asked if he was having trouble understanding the proceeding.
Abu Khattala becomes the most recent foreign terror suspect to be prosecuted in American courts, a forum the Obama administration contends is both fairer and more efficient than the military tribunal process used at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The case is being tried in Washington despite concerns from Republicans in Congress who say he should not be entitled to the protections of the U.S. legal system.
A grand jury indictment handed up under seal Thursday and made public Saturday accuses Abu Khattala of participating in a conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2012, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
That crime is punishable by life in prison. The government said it soon would file more charges against Abu Khattala.
During his initial court appearance, the defendant listened via headphones to a translation of the proceedings. He wore a two-piece black track suit, had a beard and long curly hair, both mostly gray, and kept his hands, which were not handcuffed, behind his back.
He looked impassively at U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola for most of the hearing. Abu Khattala's court-appointed lawyer, Michelle Peterson, entered the not guilty plea. Facciola ordered the defendant's continued detention, but the judge did not say where Abu Khattala would be held.
The U.S. Marshals Service said it had taken custody of Abu Khattalah, who now was confined to a detention facility in the capital region, ending a harried day for the Libyan.
U.S. special forces captured Abu Khattala in Libya two weeks ago, marking the first breakthrough in the investigation. Officials had been since been questioning Abu Khattala aboard a Navy amphibious transport dock ship that transported him to the United States.
He was flown early Saturday by military helicopter from a Navy ship to a National Park Service landing pad in the city's Anacostia neighborhood, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the transfer publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
A U.S. official said Abu Khattala had been advised of his Miranda rights at some point during his trip to the United States and continued talking after that. The official wasn't authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. The nature of those conversations wasn't immediately clear.
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