Opening statements were delivered Wednesday in the trial of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the most senior alleged member of Al Qaeda to be tried in a civilian US court.
Assistant US Attorney Nicholas Lewin told jurors that Mr. bin Laden had summoned Sulaiman Abu Ghaith on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001 and asked him to be the public face of an emboldened Al Qaeda. Two planes had just slammed into the World Trade Center, the memorial to which is about a mile downtown from the federal courtroom where Mr. Abu Ghaith is being tried.
“While our buildings still burned, he agreed ... in what is the most important moment in Al Qaeda's savage history," Mr. Lewin said, according to The Associated Press. He also showed jurors a photo of Abu Ghaith sitting with bin Laden in Afghanistan on Sept. 12, 2001, the AP reported.
Prosecutors allege that Abu Ghaith, married to bin Laden's eldest daughter, Fatima, was an Al Qaeda spokesman, appearing in post-9/11 propaganda videos telling Americans to fear a continued “storm of airplanes.” He has pled not guilty to all the charges against him, including conspiracy to kill Americans and to provide material support and resources to terrorists.
Abu Ghaith’s lawyer argued Wednesday that there is “no evidence” that the suspect conspired to kill Americans. He reminded jurors that the trial is not about bin Laden, or about Sept. 11, though both have come up repeatedly in the prosecutor’s opening statements.
US law enforcement officials took Abu Ghaith into custody in Jordan on Feb. 28, 2013, after he had been deported from Turkey, and whisked him to New York, where he landed just over 24 hours later, the AP said.
Abu Ghaith’s trial in a US federal court – in the Southern District of New York – not a military commission in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, continues an Obama administration policy of pursuing civilian court trials for foreign terror suspects, despite vehement opposition from lawmakers who say alleged foreign terrorists are not entitled to the constitutionally protected rights of defendants in US civilian courts and should be tried instead by military commissions.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said last year that US security agencies had all agreed that Abu Ghaith should be prosecuted in a federal court, both for fairness and maximum intelligence gathering reasons.
In his first campaign for president, Barack Obama promised to close the military detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, in which 155 detainees are still being held. Efforts to close the prison for good have since stalled amid opposition from Congress. But even as the White House has prioritized other issues, the administration has chosen federal courts, not Guantánamo, for international terror trials.
At issue in where to try foreign terror suspects is whether they are entitled to the protections and rights afforded to suspects in US civilian courts. Some Republican senators have come down hard against that idea.
Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, and Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire, said in a joint statement last year that “a foreign member of Al Qaeda should never be treated like a common criminal and should never hear the words 'you have a right to remain silent.' "
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, the minority leader, also said last year that the Abu Ghaith, whom he described as “an enemy combatant,” should have been placed in Guantánamo, where he could be “fulsomely and continuously interrogated without having to overcome the objections of his civilian lawyers,” according to The New York Times.
In late 2009, US Attorney General Eric Holder’s attempt to move the trial of the most senior Al Qaeda operative in US custody, alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, from Guantánamo to a Manhattan federal court was met with high-octane criticism.
Lawmakers from both parties, as well as New York City officials, had decried the idea of bringing Mr. Sheikh Mohammed to New York, a city to which the alleged terrorist had never been, but that knew him all too well. In 2011, Mr. Holder sent the case back to Guantánamo, where it has been ongoing since June 2008.
Abu Ghaith’s trial, meanwhile, appears likely to continue to pinch emotional nerves and bring up a litany of political issues as it unfolds over the next month.
During jury selection on Monday and Tuesday, the judge excused multiple jurors – who are being kept anonymous – who said they could not be impartial, citing personal loss in the 9/11 attacks, staunch opposition to US interrogation practices, and other highly emotional and political biases, Reuters reported.
And, in seeming recognition of the hot-button issues inflecting the trial, federal prosecutors moved in a recent court filing to keep “potentially inflammatory topics,” including Guantánamo and the NSA’s activities, out of the trial, The New York Times reported.
“Irrelevant concerns or controversies touching on national security would serve only to inflame the jury’s passion and prejudice it against the government,” read the filing.