WASHINGTON – A lawyer for a Libyan militant charged in the 2012 Benghazi attacks said Wednesday that she had seen no evidence tying her client to the violence, but a judge nonetheless directed Ahmed Abu Khattala to remain in custody as the Justice Department builds its case against him.
The lawyer, Michelle Peterson, conceded that Abu Khattala had no reasonable chance of being released at the moment, given the terrorism-related charge he faces and his lack of ties to the United States. But she also argued that prosecutors had failed to show, in their broad and initial outlines of the case, that he was in any way connected to the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
"What's been filed has shown, quite frankly, an utter lack of evidence of Mr. Khattala's involvement in the incident in Benghazi," said Peterson, an assistant federal public defender. "We are left to glean from press reports what the government's evidence is."
Abu Khattala appeared in court wearing a green prison jumpsuit and with a long, graying beard. He listened to the proceedings through headphones as an interpreter translated the conversation into Arabic. Peterson requested that while in jail he be served a halal diet and be provided a copy of the Quran.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiLorenzo recited some of the basic allegations of the case, telling U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson that there were no conditions under which Abu Khattala could be released that would ensure the safety of the community.
Though the outcome of the detention hearing was never in doubt, it did afford Abu Khattala's lawyer an opportunity to publicly contest certain of the government's allegations. Peterson questioned, for instance, the relevance of prosecutors' assertions that Abu Khattala had a loaded firearm at the time of his arrest and suggested it would not be unusual to be armed in a nation riven by strife and violence
The court appearance was the second in the last week for Abu Khattala, who was captured on June 15 by U.S. special forces and then transported to the United States aboard a Navy boat where federal agents interrogated him. He has pleaded not guilty to a single count of conspiring to provide support to terrorists, a crime punishable by up to life in prison, but the Justice Department has said it expects to bring additional charges soon that could reveal more information about the case.
Prosecutors this week disclosed some additional details of their case against Abu Khattala as the Libyan, believed to be about 43 years old, remains held without bond.
They alleged in a court filing that he was motivated to participate in the attacks by an extremist ideology and that, in the days before the fiery assault, had spoken out against the presence of the American compound in Benghazi.
The government says Abu Khattala was a commander of Abu Obaida bin Jarrah Brigade, an extremist group that was absorbed into Ansar al-Sharia after the recent Libyan revolution. The State Department has designated Ansar al-Sharia as a foreign terrorist organization.
On the night of the attacks, the government says, at least 20 militants – armed with Ak-47s and grenade launchers – breached the gate of the consulate compound and set buildings on fire. Once U.S. personnel evacuated the diplomatic mission, Khattala entered and "supervised the exploitation of material at the scene," prosecutors say.
The fire led to the deaths of Stevens and Information Management Officer Sean Patrick Smith. Other State Department personnel escaped to a nearby U.S. facility known as the annex.
Khattala then returned to a camp in Benghazi controlled by Ansar al-Sharia, where a large armed group began assembling for an attack on the annex, according to the court papers. The attack on that facility, including a precision mortar barrage, resulted in the deaths of security officers Tyrone Snowden Woods and Glen Anthony Doherty.
A status conference is set for next week.