Lawyers for Benghazi terrorist suspect Ahmed Abu Khattala said Wednesday their client is innocent of accusations that he helped lead the attack that killed four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador.
The U.S. government has presented “an utter lack of evidence of Mr. Khattala’s involvement in the attack in Benghazi,” his court-appointed defense attorney, Michelle Peterson, said at a hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
But federal prosecutors argued that Mr. Khattala should remain in custody prior to his trial as he presented a “danger to any person in the community” if released, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiLorenzo said.
The government has maintained that Mr. Khattala is a leader of militant group Ansar al-Shariah and was one of the organizers behind the September 11, 2012 attacks that killed four people. Mr. DiLorenzo called him “the commander of an armed militia” that has been “designated as a terrorist organization.”
The judge ordered Mr. Khattala to remain in federal custody without bond after Ms. Peterson said she believed it was the current best course of action.
Mr. Khattala is a Libyan national who doesn’t speak English and has no community ties to the U.S., Ms. Peterson said, and it would be best for him to remain in federal custody for the time being instead of being released on his own.
But she said she was reserving the right to protest the detention in the future.
Wearing headphones so that he could listen to the proceedings via his translator, Mr. Khattala sat motionless for much of the hearing and did not speak.
So far, the government has only charged Mr. Khattala with aiding terrorism, which carries a possible life sentence. Despite legal speculation that more charges would be presented in court Wednesday, prosecutors did not unveil any additional offenses — although more are expected to be forthcoming.
He was captured in Libya by a U.S. military raid in June and interrogated and transported back to the U.S. onboard a Navy ship.
At his first court appearance last week, Mr. Khattala and his lawyers pleaded not guilty. In previous statements, he proclaimed his innocence and said he was simply trying to help other Libyans injured during the confusion surrounding the attack.
The trial has raised criticism from some Republicans in Congress, who said Mr. Khattala should be tried in a military court and not afforded the rights and protections offered in the civilian justice system.
Ms. Peterson said her legal team has had trouble getting all the information they need from the government, which is trying to keep some evidence of their case against Mr. Khattala a secret.
“It’s incredibly difficult for us to defend Mr. Khattala against the charges against him when there has been no evidence presented,” she said.
The entire prosecution raises multiple legal issues of which constitutional rights apply. Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights do not always apply to foreign nationals when their property is searched or they are interrogated in foreign lands.
According to Bruce Zagaris, a Washington-based foreign relations lawyer who specializes in cases involving extradition as well as government abduction, constitutional rights for nonresident aliens overseas can be triggered based upon a number of factors.
“Foreigners do not always have the protection of the Bill of Rights when they are in foreign lands, so it is a lot easier for the U.S. to obtain evidence against persons abroad,” he said. “In some cases, it can be to the government’s advantage to pursue suspects overseas for that very reason.”
⦁ Jeffrey Scott Shapiro contributed to this report.