NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lawyers for Osama bin Laden’s son in law peppered U.S. officials with questions on Tuesday about his interrogation earlier this year as they seek to have those statements suppressed as evidence in his upcoming trial.
Suleiman Abu Ghaith, described by U.S. authorities as a spokesman for al Qaeda, faces trial in federal court in New York in January on charges he conspired to kill Americans. He has pleaded not guilty.
His interrogation occurred on a Gulfstream jet on February 28 and March 1, soon after he was handed over to U.S. officials. It was in flight to the United States from a country which lawyers referred to as “country X,” although court documents previously reported the country as Jordan.
In court on Tuesday, Brian McHugh, a deputy U.S. Marshal who took notes as an FBI agent interviewed Abu Ghaith aboard the airplane, said Abu Ghaith remained willing to talk for several hours after being read his Miranda rights which include the right to remain silent and to have a lawyer present.
“He said he was willing to tell his story and answer our questions,” said McHugh.
McHugh also said Abu Ghaith appeared healthy, and was “very calm, relaxed” during the interview.
Lawyers for Abu Ghaith have said in a court document that their client answered questions “out of a combination of disorientation, fear, isolation, fatigue and sensory deprivation.” The statements should be suppressed because of “physical and psychological coercion and violation of fundamental constitutional and statutory rights,” they said.
This was due in part to years of imprisonment in Iran with no access to a lawyer and the “small, cramped and extremely cold” ride on the Gulfstream, which aggravated Abu Ghaith’s claustrophobia, the lawyers said in a court document.
On Tuesday, the lawyers repeatedly questioned McHugh and an FBI Arabic interpreter, Nehad Abusuneina, about a hood Abu Ghaith was wearing while being transferred to U.S. custody, as well as darkened goggles and ear muffs.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan appeared to be sceptical of the line of questioning.
“Remember, the purpose of this is to persuade me of something,” Kaplan said at one point to Geoffrey Stewart, one of Abu Ghaith’s lawyers.
Stanley Cohen, another lawyer for Abu Ghaith, suggested that his client might not have understood the translations because of differences in Arabic dialect. He also said that some words attributed to Abu Ghaith might be “made up by the FBI.”
Abusuneina said Abu Ghaith, who understands some English, nodded as though he understood many questions before they were translated. Nonetheless, Abusuneina said he translated everything into “classic Arabic,” which he said is the same across the Arabic-speaking world.
Abusuneina also said that he washed Abu Ghaith’s feet aboard the flight so he could pray.
Kaplan seemed sceptical of Cohen’s questioning.
“I know you’re caught up in the excitement of the moment,” Kaplan said as Cohen pressed Abusuneina on whether Abu Ghaith had complained about conditions while imprisoned for years in Iran.
Kaplan then told Cohen that he was not “barking up the right tree” with his line of questioning.
Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; editing by Eddie Evans and Cynthia Osterman