WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is preparing to transfer a military detainee in Afghanistan for criminal trial in Virginia, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The move would mark the first time a military detainee from Afghanistan was brought to the U.S. for trial, and it represents the Obama administration's latest attempt to show that it can use the criminal court system to deal with terror suspects.
The prisoner, known by the nom de guerre Irek Hamidullan, is a Russian veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan who defected to the Taliban and stayed in the country, U.S. officials said. He was captured in 2009 after an attack on Afghan border police and U.S. soldiers in Khost province, officials said.
He has been held at the U.S. Parwan detention facility at Bagram airfield ever since. He faces up to life in prison on several charges relating to the 2009 attack, and is expected to be tried in one of the federal courthouses in the Eastern District of Virginia. Prosecutors in that office have experience with high-profile terror prosecutions, including that of Sept. 11, 2001, conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, who is serving life without parole.
The congressional and administration officials who discussed the matter would do so only on condition of anonymity because it remained classified. Congress was notified Friday that a prisoner was going to be transferred for trial, but lawmakers were given few details, several congressional aides said.
In a statement late Thursday, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said, "We can confirm that a detainee at the Parwan detention facility in Afghanistan will be transferred to law enforcement custody and will be brought to the United States for trial."
Meehan would not confirm Hamidullan's identity but said the decision to transfer the detainee was made in light of the agreement by the U.S. that it will turn over all prisons in Afghanistan to the Afghan government by 2015. As of of last month there were 13 non-Afghan detainees at Parwan, and the Obama administration is facing pressure to transfer those detainees before December, when the U.S.-led NATO combat mission ends.
"The president's national security team examined this matter and unanimously agreed that prosecution of this detainee in federal court was the best disposition option in this case," she said.
The move is likely to spark criticism from Republican lawmakers, many of whom believe that military detainees should only be tried in military courts, and that criminal prosecutions of terror suspects undermine the notion that the U.S. is at war with al-Qaida and other extremists.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said giving the detainee full legal rights "is a slap in the face to the men and women fighting abroad to keep us safe."
Trying foreign combatants in the American criminal justice system is invariably a complex endeavor, with trials often occurring years after any attack and relying on evidence pulled from sometimes-hostile countries.
But the Obama administration has made a goal of trying terror suspects in federal court whenever possible, where Attorney General Eric Holder has said they are likely to receive swifter justice.
The Justice Department in 2009 announced plans to prosecute professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and several other Guantanamo Bay detainees in New York City. Though the idea was abandoned amid political opposition, federal prosecutors won a series of convictions in federal courts against terror suspects. Holder has cited those cases, including the recent life sentence given to Osama bin Laden's spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, as proof of the criminal justice system's capacity to handle terror suspects. The case against Mohammed, meanwhile, remains stalled amid pre-trial wrangling at the Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba.
The administration currently is pursuing a criminal case against Ahmed Abu Khattala, the suspected ringleader of the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya. He was seized in a secret raid in Libya in June and pleaded not guilty in federal court in Washington last week to charges that could carry the death penalty.
"Since 9/11, first under President Bush and now under President Obama, the government has used the federal court system to convict and incarcerate hundreds of individuals charged with terrorism-related offenses that occurred both in the United States and overseas," Meehan said in her statement. "The system has repeatedly proven that it has the flexibility to successfully handle all variations of the threat that we continue to face."