US seeks 35-year sentence for second Benghazi militant in attacks; will not retry 15 hung counts

By SPENCER S. HSU | The Washington Post | Published: January 14, 2020

WASHINGTON — U.S. prosecutors asked a federal judge Monday to sentence a Libyan man to 35 years in prison for conspiring in the deadly 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The sentencing recommendation came after prosecutors decided not to retry him on 15 of 17 counts a jury had deadlocked over last June.

Mustafa al-Imam, 47, was found guilty by a federal jury in Washington of one count each of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and maliciously destroying government property, charges that carry a maximum penalty of 15 years and 20 years in prison, respectively.

In a mixed verdict, however, the jury was hung over 15 counts, including the most serious charges of murder and attempted murder in the overnight attacks in Libya that resulted in the first killing of a U.S. ambassador while performing his duties in nearly 40 years.

U.S. District Judge Christopher "Casey" Cooper declared a mistrial, then set sentencing for Jan. 23 after prosecutors opted not to retry Imam.

"The sentencing in this case should send a clear message to the world that if an individual commits such an act of terrorism anywhere in the world, the United States will take all steps necessary under the law to ensure that justice prevails — to include investigating a case in the four corners of the world in order to obtain an indictment, capturing a suspect in a hostile environment, and trying the suspect in a federal courthouse," assistant U.S. attorneys John Cummings and Karen Seifert wrote in a 40-page sentencing request.

Attorneys for Imam asked for a 41-month sentence term, saying there was no evidence he knew about and agreed with the assault.

"A long sentence does not automatically equal deterrence: injustices beget grievances that result in terrorism," wrote his court-appointed attorneys, Matthew J. Peed and Timothy Ryan Clinton. "Treating Al-Imam appropriately and fairly will go a long way to showing the fairness of U.S. legal system and its ability to honor jury verdicts and treat foreign, Muslim defendants as individuals. "

The attacks on Sept. 11 and 12, 2012, against a U.S. diplomatic mission and nearby CIA post became a political liability for 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the incident.

In a pair of extraordinary operations in Libya approved first by President Barack Obama and then his successor, President Donald Trump, American commandos accompanied by U.S. law enforcement captured alleged ringleader Ahmed Abu Khattala at a villa near Benghazi in 2014, and then Imam in a similar raid in 2017.

Both men were held aboard U.S. Navy warships and questioned under detention and interrogation policies initiated under the Obama administration and continued by Trump to capture terrorism suspects overseas for criminal trial.

Abu Khatalla, a former militia leader in Benghazi, was convicted of four counts of conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists and sentenced to 22 years in prison, although his jury similarly acquitted him of 14 counts, including the most serious counts of murder.

Despite the prosecution setbacks at both trials and questions over the interrogation techniques, U.S. officials and private analysts have said the operations and civilian prosecutions achieved their objectives after the operations removed alleged combatants from the battlefield.

By comparison, military commissions created to try terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay have been bogged down in a legal quagmire, with the start of the trial of suspects in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon still far off.

In a statement after Imam's trial, senior Justice Department and FBI officials held open the possibility of apprehending more of the dozen or so additional suspects it has identified at trial from the attacks.

"We will never forget those we lost in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012 — Tyrone Woods, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Ambassador Christopher Stevens," Attorney General for National Security John Demers said. "And we will not rest in our pursuit of the terrorists who attacked our facilities and killed these four courageous Americans — they must be held accountable for their crimes."

A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu of the District of Columbia declined to comment on the decision not to bring the remaining counts against Imam back before a jury.

In seeking leniency, Imam's attorneys said he was a "simple, non-political" convenience store clerk, whose memory was injured in a childhood car accident. They said his education ended in the eighth grade and he was manipulated by a " 'father'-like figure who led him astray against the advice of his family."

Peed and Clinton argued Abu Khattala manipulated the unwitting Imam into stealing a map and phone from the U.S. diplomatic mission — an act captured on closed-circuit surveillance video played at trial.

"Knowing that he would be seen entering the Mission office, [Abu Khattala] likely used Al-Imam to enhance his alibi," Peed and Clinton wrote.

Imam's capture was ordered by Trump, and the trial in civilian court marked the first for a foreign terrorism suspect captured abroad during his administration.

As they did at Abu Khattala's sentencing, prosecutors argued that although jurors did not reach a unanimous verdict on murder charges against Imam for the deaths of Americans at the mission and in a second round of attacks hours later on a secret nearby CIA annex, a judge could consider the murders at sentencing if he found the deaths resulted from "reasonably foreseeable acts" of co-conspirators.

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