March 08. 2013 11:10PM

Bin Laden son-in-law pleads not guilty to terrorism charge

Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK - Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden and a spokesman for al-Qaida, appeared in federal court in New York on Friday morning and entered a plea of not guilty to a charge that he conspired to kill Americans.

Hands shackled behind his back and wearing dark blue prison togs, Abu Ghaith was arraigned before U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan in New York. If convicted, the Kuwaiti-born man who is accused by U.S. authorities of being part of the terror group's inner circle, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole.

The prosecution of Abu Ghaith will be the first trial of such a senior al-Qaida figure on U.S. soil. Human rights activists and the Obama administration have argued that senior al-Qaida suspects should be tried in civilian courts rather than before military tribunals at the U.S. facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Republicans have opposed conducting terrorism trials in civilian courts in the United States, citing both security concerns and the need to use military justice protocols rather than civilian legal protections.

Abu Ghaith, 47, originally was captured by Turkish authorities and was taken into U.S. custody in Jordan as officials were returning him to Kuwait. The U.S. government released his indictment on Thursday.

In court, prosecutor John P. Cronan said Abu Ghaith made an "extensive post-arrest statement" that totaled 22 pages. Cronan gave no details about what Abu Ghaith said, according to media reports from the courtroom.

Defense attorney Philip Weinstein said attorneys met with their client "several times before this proceeding."

Republican senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire say the Obama administration is wrong to bring Abu Ghaith to court in New York. They described the action as "sneaky" and against the will of Congress.

Graham says Sulaiman Abu Ghaith is clearly an enemy combatant and should have been sent straight to the Guantanamo Bay detainee facility in Cuba for extended questioning.

Graham and Ayotte said at hastily arranged news conference Thursday that they worry that the administration's decision to have Abu Ghaith appear in a federal court in New York will establish a precedent. Ayotte says suspects like Abu Ghaith do not deserve the protections of U.S. courts.

Friday morning's court action lasted no more than 15 minutes. Bail was not requested. A trial date will be set at the next conference meeting on April 8.

According to the prosecution, Abu Ghaith was the spokesman for al-Qaida, working with his father-in-law and with Ayman al-Zawahri, the current head of the terrorist group, since at least May 2001. Abu Ghaith is a preacher and teacher.

The day after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, prosecutors say, he appeared with bin Laden and al-Zawahri and called on Muslims to battle Jews, Christians and Americans. A "great army is gathering against you," Abu Ghaith said on Sept. 12, 2001, according to prosecutors.

Obama pledged shortly after taking office in 2009 that that foreign terrorists would be charged in American federal courts, in part, to close Guantanamo Bay. The facility remains open.

In 2010, the Obama administration abandoned plans to bring five men charged with plotting the Sept. 11 attacks _ including the accused mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed _ to trial in the same courthouse in Lower Manhattan where Abu Ghaith appeared on Friday. The courthouse is just blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack.

That trial was dropped after some New York officials, who originally had agreed to the proceeding, changed their minds, citing security issues. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the Abu Ghaith trial would not present a problem.

"It's the federal government's choice," Bloomberg said during his weekly radio interview, when asked about the issue of trying high-profile terrorism defendants in civilian courts. Bloomberg dismissed arguments that such defendants create security concerns that put undue weight on local law enforcement.

"If you are in federal court here in New York, you go from the holding pen to the courtroom underground," he said, rejecting the idea that the trial would be hugely disruptive. Ultimately, though, he said it was up to President Barack Obama and the attorney general to decide where Abu Ghaith would be tried.

Former New York Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief Jim Riches, whose son, Jim, was a police officer who died on 9/11, said he agreed with Bloomberg that the trial being held in New York would not create disruptions or undue security risks. Most important, he said, federal courts have a track record of moving faster than military courts when dealing with high-profile terrorism defendants, and that is something he said families of victims need and deserve.

"The families haven't had any justice for years," he said, accusing politicians who oppose trials in civilian courts of interfering. "It's wrong. They should try them here. We were promised justice. It's been anything but. It's just been a political fight."

Three terrorism defendants, who were extradited from Britain in October, are also facing trial in Manhattan.

Plans to try Abu Ghaith have drawn criticism from Republicans.

"We should treat enemy combatants like the enemy _ the U.S. court system is not the appropriate venue. The president needs to send any captured al-Qaida members to Guantanamo," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Select Intelligence Committee, said in a prepared statement.

Human rights activists strongly disagreed. "Our nation's track record of successfully prosecuting alleged terrorists in federal court is second to none," said Raha Wala, a lawyer at Human Rights First.