NEW YORK — With the surprise appearance in a New York courtroom of Osama bin Laden’s son in law on Friday, the US justice system’s handling of terrorism cases itself went back on trial.
Until now, alleged Al-Qaeda figures have been more likely to be blown apart by a missile from a US drone or to disappear into the netherworld of secret CIA or secretive military prisons, before resurfacing in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But on this occasion, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, accused of conspiring to kill US nationals, was arraigned in a wood-paneled Manhattan federal courtroom, accompanied by three lawyers and witnessed by the media.
The proceeding lasted just a quarter of an hour.
Wearing a blue prison smock and politely standing before Judge Lewis Kaplan, the meek-looking suspect was a far cry from his firebrand presence at the Al Qaeda founder’s side in years past.
President Barack Obama has long argued that such a hearing is exactly the way justice should be done.
He even promised when first elected to close the Guantanamo prison camp down and to move all terrorism cases into civilian courts to be tried in public and with all due process.
But many disagree, arguing that militants in this shadowy struggle between Al-Qaeda sympathizers and the US global presence do not deserve the same legal rights as Americans.
Obama, an enthusiastic proponent of drone assassinations, has himself sent deeply mixed messages.
And as soon as the government revealed that Abu Ghaith had been spirited in a secret operation onto US soil and put in front of a New York judge, the criticism started.
US Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the civilian prosecution “makes little sense, and reveals, yet again, a stubborn refusal to avoid holding additional terrorists at the secure facility at Guantanamo Bay.”
Another Republican senator, John Cornyn, said Guantanamo is “the only place where we should be detaining America’s most dangerous enemy combatants — period.”
White House spokesman Joshua Earnest countered that there is “broad consensus” in justice, intelligence and national security agencies that Abu Ghaith belonged in a New York courtroom.
Earnest pointed to successful trials in civilian court of other terrorism defendants, including convicted underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
However, those cases were not related to the September 11, 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York.
An attempt in 2010 by the Obama administration to bring five alleged 9/11 plotters to the same Manhattan courthouse that Abu Ghaith saw Friday failed.
The building is just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, where the Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11, and the prospect of having such prominent alleged plotters there sparked outrage.
Some of the families of 9/11 victims described the move as an insult, while city officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, balked at what they said would be the security nightmare.
Ultimately, Obama was forced into an embarrassing climb-down and the five, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were shipped to Guantanamo — which, despite Obama’s promise, remains in full business.
Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First said the Abu Ghaith experience shows the right way.
“Today’s efficient arraignment is a far cry from the clumsy military commissions proceedings we see at Guantanamo”, she said Friday.
“Today’s hearing took 17 minutes, the government had already turned over the bulk of its unclassified discovery and the judge announced that he will set a trial date next month.”
By contrast, 13 hours were needed for the initial processing of the alleged 9/11 plotters when they got to Guantanamo and no trial date has been set.
“The prosecution of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith clearly demonstrates that federal courts are the best venue for federal terrorism trials,” she said.