Anas al Libi pleaded not guilty Tuesday to federal charges that he helped plan the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Lawyers for al Libi, a Libyan who was captured by U.S. Army Delta Force commandos in an Oct. 5 raid outside his home in Tripoli, entered the not guilty plea during a brief appearance in federal court in New York.
In a sign of the alleged terror case's significance, al Libi, 49, was represented by David E. Patton, head of New York's large federal public defender's office. Another attorney in that office, Sabrina Shroff, also appeared with al Libi at the court hearing.
Al Libi had been one of four fugitives who'd not been killed or captured, among 21 alleged terrorists named in a 1998 indictment over the embassy bombings, which killed 224 people including two CIA agents and 10 other Americans.
Al Libi's family in Libya told CNN that he left al Qaeda years ago. Relatives said he suffers from hepatitis C, and he reportedly received medical care in New York after his arrival there on Saturday.
Before his transfer to New York, al Libi is thought to have been interrogated for a week on a U.S. Navy ship in the Mediterranean.
Jack Cloonan, a retired FBI agent who said he spent years tracking al Libi as a member of the FBI's Osama bin Laden unit, told McClatchy that prosecutors have a very strong case against the Libyan.
The updated indictment filed in court Tuesday says al Libi did surveillance of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi before the Aug. 7, 1998 bombing.
Speaking through a translator, al Libi told the court that he prefers using his formal name, Nazih Abdul Hamed al Ruqai. Anas al Libi was his name allegedly used by al Qaida associates.
Patton said the government's case against al Libi, as outlined in the indictment, leaves prosecutors open to important questions.
"The presumption of innocence is not a small technicality here," Patton said in a statement. "In a 150-page indictment, Mr. al Ruqai is mentioned in a mere three paragraphs relating to conduct in 1993 and 1994 and nothing since."
Patton said al Libi's alleged meeting with al Qaida members to discuss a possible bombing of the embassy in Nairobi took place five years before it was bombed.
"There is no allegation that he had any connection to al Qaida after 1994, and he is eager to move forward with the legal process in this case," Patton said.
Judge Lewis Kaplan ordered al Libi held without bail after agreeing with prosecutors that he represents a flight risk and poses a danger to the community.
Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who heads a key House subcommittee on counterterrorism, expressed disappointment with President Barack Obama's decision to try al Libi in a New York federal court instead of before a military commission at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"It shows the inherent flaws in the U.S. policy decision to try in the U.S. because once you arrive on U.S. soil, that ends the interrogation of these high-value detainees," King said.
Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, disagreed. He said the military commissions at Guantanamo have not operated effectively, despite being in place for more than a decade.
"Their use opens the United States to criticism and mistrust from the international community," Tobias said. "The federal civilian courts, especially the Southern District of New York, are open, transparent and fair, which evokes confidence in the results of the prosecutions."
Eugene R. Fidell, a Yale Law School professor who’s written extensively about the Guantanamo Bay detentions, said al Libi’s prospective trial in New York was an ironic outcome of a law Congress passed in December 2010 that limited the ability of the U.S. attorney general to transfer detainees there to stand trial in federal court.
“What (lawmakers) have done is to incentivize the executive branch not to send people to Guantanamo because it’s a one-way ticket,” Fidell told McClatchy.
Virginia Sloan, head of The Constitution Project, a bipartisan legal watchdog group based in Washington, praised the decision.
"Both before Sept. 11 (2001) and since, federal courts have safely and without fanfare gone about the business of adjudicating hundreds of complex terrorism cases," she said.