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Benghazi Suspect Spends A Day In Court


Well, now the latest on the Benghazi case - the man accused in the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Libya, which killed four Americans, appeared in federal court. At the end of a brief hearing, a judge ordered Ahmed Abu Khattala to remain in federal custody. And prosecutors outlined some new details about the violent events that night in September 2012, and of Khattala's alleged role in them. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson was in the courtroom and she's here with us now to talk about the case. Hi.


SIEGEL: What more can you tell us about what happened in court today?

JOHNSON: So when a - Abu Khattala appeared in court on Saturday, right after he got flown into D.C. from a Navy ship, he looked really dazed and confused, Robert. Today, a different story - he was alert, listening intently to the proceedings through some headsets and an interpreter. He sometimes looked out - out at all of us in the audience, and he wore a green jumpsuit with the word prisoner on the back. He still has a really long, gray beard. Robert, the purpose of this hearing today was for prosecutors to show enough evidence to prove that he's dangerous and a flight-risk. So he needs to be detained in advance of the trial. That's just what the judge did.

SIEGEL: That's the case for keeping him in federal custody before the trial. What evidence have prosecutors laid out actually tying him to the attack in Benghazi?

JOHNSON: We just caught a glimpse of that. What we see so far, is that prosecutors say they have video clips of the diplomatic compound under attack in September 2012, some eyewitness accounts tying Khattala to the attack, and prosecutors also made some broad statements about his possible motivations - talking about him as a senior commander in a brigade that joined with Ansar al-Sharia, which has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government - that Khattala had a disgust with the U.S. presence in Libya, and that he allegedly supervised the removal of documents from that compound in Benghazi after it caught fire.

SIEGEL: Now Khattala was captured by U.S. Special Forces and the FBI in Libya last month. Is there any more on what he's actually told investigators?

JOHNSON: The government says he's made voluntary statements to federal agents even, Robert, after he was read his Miranda Rights. And law enforcement sources tell me he shared information about other people and their role that night, but he denies any role himself in those attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other men.

SIEGEL: What are his lawyers saying about this, and is it possible to get a sense of the outlines of his defense?

JOHNSON: In a bit of a surprise today, Robert, his public defender, Michelle Peterson, came out of the gate swinging. She criticized prosecutors for making sweeping statements about him, and she said there's an utter lack of evidence tying Khattala to the violence that night. She says the government's theory seems to be, he knew people who were involved in storming the diplomatic compound, rather than him being involved himself. And she pointed out that Abu Khattala, in the couple of years since this attack, has told people he didn't have a direct role. That's his story and he's sticking to it for now.

SIEGEL: What happens next in this case?

JOHNSON: Well, Khattala has asked for a Halal diet and a Quran while he's incarcerated. It appears the court system is going to give him those things. He's due back again in court next week. And more evidence may be coming out in the days ahead. But we should not expect, I hear from the government, that an FBI affidavit, which forms the basis of the primary allegations against him, to come out anytime soon. That's going to stay under seal for a while. And worth noting - the Justice Department says it's going to add more charges against him, including charges that could carry the death penalty in the weeks to come.

SIEGEL: OK, thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR Justice Department correspondent Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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