NEW YORK (Reuters) - A son-in-law of Osama bin Laden pleaded not guilty in a New York court on Friday to conspiring to kill Americans, becoming one of the highest-ranking al Qaeda figures to face trial in the United States for crimes connected to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a militant who has acted in videos as an al Qaeda spokesman, made his initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, only blocks from the site of the hijacked plane strikes on the World Trade Centre.
The son-in-law of bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11 attacks who was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan in 2011, was captured on February 28 and brought secretly into the United States on March 1, prosecutors said in court.
Government sources said he was arrested in Turkey, although some news outlets were reporting he was taken into custody in Jordan.
The balding, bearded Abu Ghaith, 47, was led handcuffed into the crowded courtroom, the largest in the courthouse. Dressed in dark blue prison garb, he appeared to be cooperative and to follow the proceedings closely through an interpreter, frequently nodding.
Evidence against Abu Ghaith, one of the highest-ranking al Qaeda figures to be brought to the United States to face a civilian trial, includes videos, audio recordings of him and others and a 22-page report with transcripts of remarks he has made to law enforcement since his arrest, prosecutors said.
Abu Ghaith spoke twice in court, answering “Yes” when Judge Lewis Kaplan asked him if he understood the accusations and “Yes” when asked if he wanted court-appointed lawyers Martin Cohen and Philip Weinstein.
Weinstein, who previously represented Faisal Shazad, a Pakistan-born U.S. citizen who admitted trying to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010 and is serving life in prison without parole, entered a not guilty plea on Abu Ghaith’s behalf.
Security was especially tight at the courthouse, where entrances were barricaded. Earlier efforts by the Obama administration to hold civilian trials in New York City for suspected September 11 plotters met with resistance over the needs for extreme and costly safety measures.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in 2010 the cost of hosting a trial for another leading suspect, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four accomplices would top $200 million annually. With public opposition so strong, the case was moved to the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Prosecutors said they expect the Abu Ghaith trial could last three weeks. A trial date will be set at a hearing on April 8.
The Obama administration’s decision to charge Abu Ghaith in a civilian court was criticized by U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who like many in the opposition party, believe the defendant should be considered an “enemy combatant” and detained for interrogation by the U.S. military for information about al Qaeda.
McConnell said in a statement that bringing Abu Ghaith to the United States “solely for civilian prosecution makes little sense, and reveals, yet again, a stubborn refusal to avoid holding additional terrorists” at Guantanamo.
In court on Friday, the judge read aloud from the indictment, which accuses Abu Ghaith of urging allegiance to bin Laden and threatening attacks similar to September 11 against the United States.
The indictment said Abu Ghaith delivered a speech that included “the storms shall not stop, especially the airplanes storm” and advised Muslims “not to board aircraft and not to live in high rises.”
Abu Ghaith stood while the judge was speaking but partway through reading the details of the charge, the judge broke off and told him he could sit.
The indictment accuses Abu Ghaith of acting in a conspiracy that “would and did murder United States nationals anywhere in the world,” listing actions before and after September 11, 2001.
Additional reporting by Chris Francescani; Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Grant McCool