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October 11, 2017

Benghazi Trial Clear Case of Federal Court Superiority to GTMO

By Sara Sirota

Last week, Libyan national Ahmed Abu Khattala’s trial for his alleged participation in the 2012 Benghazi attacks began in federal court.

American commandos captured Khattala during a secret nighttime raid in Benghazi in June 2014. A federal grand jury subsequently indicted him on 18 charges, including conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists resulting in death.

Khattala’s defense attorneys argue that his role during the attacks, which left four Americans dead, amounted to no more than a bystander. They claim that he was not the integral player that the Justice Department alleges.

The Justice Department accuses Khattalah—a former political prisoner under Moammar Gaddafi—of participating in the attacks as the commander of the Benghazi branch of the Libyan terrorist organization Ansar al-Sharia. The United States designated Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization in 2004, though the group has since dissolved.

During the third day of his trial on October 4, Khattala sat alongside his team of defense attorneys in a Washington, D.C. federal courtroom. Across the aisle sat the prosecutors and jury, composed of twelve individuals from the local Washington, D.C. community.

Behind Khattala, a woman sitting at a desk translated the trial’s proceedings into a microphone, which he listened to through a pair of headphones. He watched as David Ubben, an American survivor of the attacks, provided testimony about the gruesome injuries he suffered in Benghazi on the evening of September 11, 2012. When the Assistant U.S. Attorney presented images and maps to Ubben, they were projected onto screens for Khattala, the jury, judge, and entire courtroom to see.

Khattala’s trial highlights the sharp contrast between terrorism prosecutions in federal court and the broken military commission system at Guantanamo. Federal courts offer procedural benefits for the prosecution of suspected terrorists that a military commission—which can only try war crimes—does not. The Department of Justice can prosecute Khattala for a range of crimes that otherwise do not fall under the jurisdiction of a military commission. Khattala’s charges include material support for terrorism and using a firearm during a violent crime, which are not war crimes.

Federal courts have also proven much more effective at obtaining convictions of terrorist suspects than military commissions. Since September 11, 2001, military commission trials have resulted in only eight convictions, three of which were reversed or overturned entirely and one partially. Meanwhile, federal courts have produced more than 600 terrorism-related convictions in the same period, including 108 in which the defendant was captured abroad, like Khattala.

Khatalla’s trial should serve as a beacon for U.S. terrorism-related trials moving forward. Not only is a federal court more efficient in prosecuting such cases, but providing access to an independent, civilian tribunal demonstrates that the United States is a country of laws and values.