NEW YORK // A senior Al Qaeda leader and son-in-law of Osama bin Laden pleaded not guilty yesterday in federal court in New York to plotting against Americans in his role as the terror network's top spokesman.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was brought into the largest courtroom at the federal courthouse shortly after 10am and 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.
Black cuffs bound his hands behind him as he was led into a courtroom with about 80 spectators, mostly journalists, lawyers and court employees. He was bearded and wearing a blue prison uniform. The cuffs were taken off, and he was seated next to his court-appointed lawyer, federal defender Philip Weinstein.
Mr Ghaith, who was arrested on February 28, gave an "extensive post-arrest statement" that totalled 22 pages, and arrived in the US on March 1, John P Cronan, the assistant US attorney, said. Reports varied on where he was arrested, with some reports saying he was captured in Jordan and others saying Turkey.
Through an interpreter, Judge Lewis A Kaplan asked whether Mr Ghaith understood his rights. Mr Ghaith nodded yes. Asked whether he had money to hire an attorney, Mr Ghaith shook his head no. He nodded when asked whether he had signed an affidavit describing his financial situation.
Bail was not requested, and none was set. The judge said he would set a trial date on April 8. Prosecutors said a trial would last about three weeks.
The Obama administration has long sought to charge leading Al Qaeda suspects in American federal courts instead of military tribunals at the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But it runs counter to demands by Republicans in Congress who do not want high-threat terror suspects brought into the United States.
Mr Ghaith was born in Kuwait and was bin Laden's son-in-law. The justice department said he was the spokesman for Al Qaeda, working alongside bin Laden and the movement's present leader, Ayman Al Zawahri, since at least May 2001. Mr Ghaith is a former mosque preacher and teacher.
The day after the September 11 attacks, prosecutors say, he appeared with bin Laden and Al Zawahri and called on the "nation of Islam" to battle against Jews, Christians and Americans.
A "great army is gathering against you", Mr Ghaith said on September 12, 2001, according to prosecutors.
Mr Ghaith's trial will mark one of the first prosecutions of senior Al Qaeda leaders on US soil. Charging foreign terror suspects in American federal courts was one of Mr Obama's main pledges shortly after he took office in 2009, aimed, in part, to close Guantanamo Bay.
* Associated Press