Sulaiman Abu Ghayth, the alleged al Qaida spokesman currently on trial in New York, and Osama Bin Laden on Oct. 7, 2001. (Al Jazeera)
The prosecution of alleged al Qaeda propagandist Sulaiman Abu Ghayth for being part of Osama bin Laden’s murderous conspiracy began Monday as prospective jurors filed into the courtroom of Southern District Judge Lewis Kaplan at 500 Pearl St.
With security tight, prosecutors and defense lawyers appeared before Kaplan to question potential jurors who have made it through initial screening after filling out written questionnaires.
The Kuwaiti-born Abu Ghayth, 48, a son-in-law of the late bin Laden, allegedly served a spokesperson for al Qaida, appearing the day after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks with bin Laden and top al Qaida member Ayman al-Zawahiri to warn the United States that a “great army is gathering against you” and calling upon Muslim to take the fight to “the Jews, the Christians and the Americans.”
Jurors are expected to see a video of the three together as part of the government case argued by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Nicholas Lewin, Michael Ferrara and John Cronan.
The prosecution also expects to introduce into evidence video recorded statements by Abu Ghayth and to call an expert witness on the history and structure of al Qaida, terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann.
Shortly after 9/11, Abu Ghayth gave a speech in which he said, “the storms shall not stop, especially the Airplanes Storm.” He advised Muslims and children and opponents of the United States “not to board any aircraft and not to live in high rises.”
Abu Ghayth, in May 2001, also allegedly urged visitors to a Kandahar, Afghanistan guesthouse to swear an oath of allegiance, or “bayat,” to bin Laden and al Qaida.
These allegations were part of the initial, one-count indictment charging him with conspiring to kill U.S. nationals in violation 18 U.S.C. 2332(b). The government later added two counts in December 2013, but all of the allegations concern the time period between 2001 and 2002.
Abu Ghayth was captured in Jordanian authorities in February 2013, turned over to U.S. officials and flown to the United States, where he pleaded not guilty to the charges at his initial appearance.
Abu Ghayth attorney Stanley Cohen charged in July 2013 that his client was subjected “a variety of deprivation techniques and harsh treatment which constitute torture” for 14 hours while being flown from Amman, Jordan to the United States.
Cohen also argued to Kaplan that statements his client made while being transported should be suppressed not only because they were not voluntary but because he was not given Miranda rights.
But Kaplan rejected those arguments in an opinion released Nov. 26, 2013.
A superceding indictment filed in December 2013 charged Abu Ghayth with conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists, 18 U.S.C. §§2339A and 3238 and a substantive count providing material support and resources to terrorists, 18 U.S.C. 981(a)(1)(G) and 28 U.S.C. 2461(c).
Cohen, who is joined on the defense team by Geoffrey Stewart, Zoe Dolan and Ashraf Nubani, also moved to suppress two out-of-court identifications by a cooperating witness as well to preclude in-court identification by that same witness.
Kaplan denied the motion to suppress on Jan. 2.
Two weeks later, the judge granted a government motion to take the cooperating witness’ testimony from London through CCTV. Prosecution and defense attorneys will fly to London to question him.
Just before trial, Abu Ghayth’s defense team negotiated a deal with the government to gain access to the man the Obama administration once planned to try in New York, top al Qaida operative Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
They succeeded in getting questions to Mohammed at Guantanamo Bay. Cohen claims Mohammed could provide exculpatory testimony for Ghayth, and the questions were answered in a 14-page declaration.
But Mohammed’s own legal team, not satisfied with government promises to refrain from using the declaration against their client, has refused to release the declaration, and Kaplan last week said there would be no more delays in jury selection.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in 2009 the government planned to move Mohammed from Guantanamo to New York for trial in Southern District, but he was forced to reverse course in 2011 amid congressional, and local, opposition to trying Mohammed and other accused terrorists at 500 Pearl Street.
Still, the administration has pressed forward, sending one terror detainee to New York, Ahmed Ghailani, who was convicted before Kaplan in 2010, and bringing three others directly to New York where they are now awaiting trial.
Kaplan on Monday started questioning prospective members of the anonymous jury who have already been thoroughly screened by both sides in the case, and dealt with the claims of many that serving on the trial could work a hardship.
Among substantiative questions Kaplan asked jurors was whether they would have a problem hearing testimony from a witness who has been detained at Guantanamo.
The judge also asked jurors if they had any problems with the testimony of witnesses who may have been one-time accomplices of the defendant, have pleaded guilty to crimes and are now cooperating with the government.
Jury selection is expected to continue at least into Wednesday. The trial is expected to last about three weeks.