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Milbank: American justice where everyone can see

First Published Jul 03 2014 07:59 am • Last Updated Jul 03 2014 08:03 am

WASHINGTON • Justice is blind, and for about 10 minutes Wednesday she couldn’t hear or speak either.

Ahmed Abu Khattala, alleged mastermind of the Benghazi attacks, took his place at the defense table for his detention hearing and put on his headset. But as soon as proceedings began, the accused terrorist let it be known that he wasn’t hearing the English-to-Arabic translation.

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"One, two, one, two," attempted the interpreter, who sat at a table behind Abu Khattala’s.

"Are you speaking English?" the public defender, Michelle Peterson, asked the interpreter.

"I’m speaking Arabic," the interpreter answered, in English.

A clerk walked over to investigate. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson’s face tightened into a perturbed grin. "We will proceed as soon as this problem is resolved," she said.

For the next several minutes, lawyers, clerks, interpreter and Libyan militant fiddled with the audio. There was much head-shaking and pressing of buttons on the translation console. "Ms. Peterson, turn his headset the other way. ... It’s too loud. ... One, two, one, two. ... It only gets Channel 2. ... Let me try it my way. ... One, two, three, one, two, three."

The judge’s assistant picked up a telephone. "Angelise," she said, "can you come to Courtroom 4? We may need a little help with the interpreting equipment."

Those who favored sending Abu Khattala to Gitmo will perhaps think the translation trouble proves their point. But Wednesday’s proceedings at the U.S. District Court — the early stages of the biggest terrorism case to be tried in the nation’s capital — also showed what is right about civilian courts.

The accused could see that he was represented by a legal team — Peterson and her assistant — that vigorously challenged the government’s case. He could hear the judge making sure he understood his rights, and prosecutors assuring the judge they would share the evidence against Abu Khattala with the defense. As important, the world could see (or learn from those in the courtroom, broadcasting via five satellite trucks parked outside the courthouse) that the prisoner was treated with dignity: He sat unshackled, and, through his lawyer, he entered a request for a halal diet and an Arabic-language Koran.

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It was far better treatment than was given the four Americans killed in the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks that Abu Khattala allegedly coordinated.

Doors were bolted at the court’s main entrance, just a few blocks from the Capitol. Two men carrying pistols and machine guns patrolled near the statue of Sir William Blackstone. The open-to-the-public session was jammed — thanks to the many law-firm interns and clerks who had come as terror-trial tourists — and some spectators were sent to an overflow room.

Abu Khattala, led in by two beefy marshals in business suits, was in a green jumpsuit with fading letters spelling "PRISONER" on the back. His wild gray hair and equally unruly beard made him look two decades older than his 43 years. Abu Khattala appeared disoriented in court over the weekend, but this time he seemed to be following the proceedings closely.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiLorenzo, one of five people at the prosecution table, recalled the tragic events of 2012. "They discharged their weapons" and "set fire to the building," he said, and "this led to the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and information officer Sean Smith." DiLorenzo then described the mortar attack that killed Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.

DiLorenzo noted, with a bit of understatement, that "the history and character of the defendant" — commander of an armed militia that is designated a terrorist organization — weighed against releasing him.

Peterson didn’t argue otherwise. She even tried to defend Abu Khattala’s character. "He spent a decade fighting the Gaddafi regime and spent numerous years in prison" as a consequence, she said. In response to prosecutors’ claims that Abu Khattala was found armed, she said it’s "a bit of a stretch" to suggest that "someone armed in Libya is akin to someone armed in D.C." And she said prosecutors should not be allowed to "taint" Abu Khattala as "dangerous" in the eyes of prospective jurors.

It was probably more than the accused terrorist deserves, but exactly what he’s entitled to in the American justice system. Even the audio worked, in the end. As Abu Khattala rose to be escorted from the courtroom, one of the marshals reminded him that he first needed to remove his headset.

Twitter, @Milbank

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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