NEW YORK — A senior al-Qaida leader and son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, captured in Jordan a week ago, pleaded not guilty Friday in a heavily secured New York courtroom to plotting against Americans before and immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks in his role as the terror network’s top spokesman.
Bearded and balding, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was escorted into the largest courtroom at the federal courthouse in Manhattan, where he entered the plea through a lawyer to one count of conspiracy to kill Americans in a case that marks a legal victory for President Barack Obama’s administration.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John P. Cronan revealed that Abu Ghaith gave an “extensive post-arrest statement” that totaled 22 pages after he was arrested overseas the night of Feb. 28 and arrived in the United States on March 1. The prosecutor said nothing about the contents of Abu Ghaith’s statement.
A law enforcement official with knowledge of the case said Abu Ghaith initially agreed to be interviewed without an attorney at the FBI office in lower Manhattan immediately after his arrival. Later in the day, he requested an attorney and was interviewed with an attorney present. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the case.
Nearly a dozen deputy U.S. marshals guarded the ceremonial courtroom as about 80 spectators, mostly journalists, lawyers and court employees, watched the 15-minute proceeding before U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, a no-nonsense judge who promised to set a trial date when Abu Ghaith returns to court on April 8.
Kaplan advised Abu Ghaith: “This is not a trial.” He then read him his rights.
Through an interpreter, Kaplan asked whether Abu Ghaith understood his rights. Abu Ghaith nodded and said, “Yes, I do.”
Asked whether he had money to hire an attorney, Abu Ghaith shook his head and said no. He nodded and said yes when asked whether he had signed an affidavit describing his financial situation.
Bail was not requested, and none was set. Prosecutors said a trial would last about three weeks. After the proceeding, Abu Ghaith’s lawyer declined comment.