By Christopher M. Matthews and Devlin Barrett
An alleged al Qaeda leader pleaded not guilty in federal court to charges that he helped plan the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people.
Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Abu Anas al-Libi, made his first court appearance in the U.S. Tuesday after being charged by federal prosecutors more than a decade ago.
Mr. Ruqai, 49 years old, whose long, reddish-gray beard extended over his shirt, sat silently through the arraignment in Manhattan, which lasted less than an hour. The proceedings were translated into Arabic for Mr. Ruqai, who doesn't speak English.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan said he would appoint a lawyer for Mr. Ruqai because the suspect couldn't afford to hire his own counsel. The judge ordered Mr. Ruqai held without bail, deciding the suspect poses a threat to the community and is a flight risk.
A sketch of Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, right, in court in New York City Tuesday. He is accused of helping to plan U.S. embassy bombings in 1998. Reuters
Mr. Ruqai, who isn't eligible for the death penalty, was indicted in 2000 along with Osama bin Laden and more than a dozen other suspects accused of running a global terrorist conspiracy under the name of al Qaeda.
Mr. Ruqai's plea followed a dramatic series of events in recent weeks, starting with his capture in Libya this month in a raid by the U.S. Army's Delta Force and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Hostage Rescue Team. He then underwent a weeklong interrogation aboard the USS San Antonio in the Mediterranean Sea before coming to New York during the weekend, according to U.S. officials.
The U.S. officials said the suspect arrived aboard the military ship with a number of health problems that worsened during his time on board. The officials wouldn't describe the problems, but his wife has told reporters he suffers from hepatitis C.
His time in military custody was cut short by his worsening medical condition, the officials said, and he was sent to New York earlier than U.S. officials had planned so he could receive more-expert medical treatment.
Mr. Ruqai's transfer marks another instance in which the Obama administration has decided to put global terrorism suspects on trial in federal court, rather than in military tribunals, as some Republicans in Congress have urged.
Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.) said that if medical treatment required Mr. Ruqai's removal from the ship, he should have been taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for treatment, not New York, so that questioning could continue
"It's not convicting him I'm worried about, it's getting intelligence through interrogation,'' said Mr. King. "Now that he's in the U.S., the interrogation stops and he tells us what he wants to tell us."
Some Democrats praised the move. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said Monday that "the indefinite detention of al-Libi at Guantanamo would have been unnecessary and unwise."
Administration officials point to federal courts' record of convicting terrorists. More than 125 defendants have been convicted on terrorism-related charges in federal court since 2009, according to the Justice Department. In contrast, many cases in the military-tribunal system used at Guantanamo Bay have stalled.