WASHINGTON—During a brief courtroom appearance, Libyan militant Ahmed Abu Khattala pleaded not guilty Saturday to a one-count indictment over his alleged role in the 2012 attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi.
The charge carries a maximum punishment of life in prison, but Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Michael DiLorenzo told the court that additional charges were expected to be filed.
The government’s three-count criminal complaint against Khattala, unsealed upon his capture, includes one count of causing the death of an American in a federal building, which carries the death penalty.
The charge filed Saturday was for conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists.
It was the first public appearance of Khattala since he was captured earlier this month.
Khattala, his graying hair and beard long and slightly unkempt, appeared unshackled before Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola in the federal courtroom in the capital.
Speaking in Arabic, he only answered “yes” after being sworn in.
His federal defender entered the not guilty plea on his behalf.
The hearing lasted less than 10 minutes in the courtroom filled primarily with reporters and court and law enforcement personnel.
The silver-haired judge magistrate, speaking in slow and deliberate tones, ordered Khattala to remain in custody because he is a flight risk and could obstruct justice.
Khattala was captured earlier this month in a secret raid near Benghazi, where he had been living freely since the attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
The Obama administration’s decision to bring Khattala to U.S. soil rather than the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, revived criticisms from Republican lawmakers, who say bringing such suspects to the U.S. may raise security concerns and could allow alleged terrorists to exploit the U.S. justice system.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have raised concerns over the decision to hold Khattala in the U.S. amid ongoing investigations in Congress about the administration’s handling of the attacks two years ago on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, which touched off a political firestorm in the U.S.
Obama has vowed to shut down the Guantanamo Bay facility, which critics deride as a violation of human rights, and administration officials say they do not want to add new detainees.
The Justice Department has argued that the federal courts are capable of handling cases of suspected militants.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. earlier this year cited the successful conviction in a Manhattan federal court of Sulaiman abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and spokesman, as an example of the civilian court’s ability to handle such cases.
Abu Ghaith was convicted in U.S. District Court of conspiring to kill Americans and faces a possible life sentence.
But lawmakers have resisted bringing terror suspects to the U.S., and prosecution of a militant like Khattala in the nation’s capital is rare.
“I have serious concerns that conducting a rushed interrogation onboard a ship and then turning Khattala over to our civilian courts risks losing critical intelligence that could lead us to other terrorists or prevent future attacks,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
Obama had tried to move alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his accomplices from Guantanamo to New York to face trial, but lawmakers from both parties objected. In 2011 Congress made it illegal to transfer prisoners from Guantanamo to the U.S.
William Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, had no further comment Saturday.
The Pentagon has called Khattala a “key figure” in the attack in Benghazi, when attackers stormed the compound and overwhelmed Libyan guards.
The State Department designated Khattala as a terrorist in January, describing him as a leader of Ansar al Sharia, a Libyan militant group that has been described as having links to al-Qaida.
Since Khattala’s capture earlier this month U.S. officials had been questioning him aboard a Navy amphibious transport, which brought him to the United States.
Khattala is expected to face federal charges that could bring the death penalty, federal officials said at the time of his capture. The charges against him and 12 others who allegedly took part in the attack in Benghazi were filed a year ago by federal prosecutors in Washington.