In a pre-trial hearing Tuesday, lawyers for Usama bin Laden’s son-in-law argued that their client had been forced to wear a hood, black-out goggles and ear muffs during his rendition and interrogation, which left him disoriented and incapable of answering questions properly, including waiving his Miranda rights.
The defendant, Suleiman Abu Ghayth, is described by U.S. authorities as a spokesman for Al Qaeda, and faces trial in New York’s federal court in January on charges he conspired to kill Americans. He has pleaded not guilty.
At this morning's hearing, the defense team presented retired brigadier general and psychiatrist, Stephen Xenakis, who had studied the FBI’s medical records and notes from the rendition and interrogation of Abu Ghayth. The interrogation occurred during a 12-hour flight aboard a Gulfstream jet from “country X” to the United States. The defense team argues that whatever Ghayth said during the flight should not be allowed as evidence in the case.
Defense attorney Stanley Cohen asked Dr. Xenakis, a physician who has testified at Guantanamo Bay and is an outspoken critic of torture and abuse of detainees in U.S. custody, whether Abu Ghayth could have been so stressed, fatigued and disoriented that the answers and nods with which he responded to his interrogators could have been inaccurate. Xenakis said that since he did not interview Ghayth, he could not definitively say that Ghayth was not in a condition to accurately answer questions.
The psychiatrist did say that medical records of Ghayth stated that he was suffering from claustrophobia while her was imprisoned in Iran and that it is possible the prisoner was disoriented during the rendition process. The government maintains that Abu Ghayth was willing to talk for several hours after being read his Miranda rights. A U.S. marshal, who took notes during Ghayth’s interview aboard the plane, testified last month that Ghayth was “willing to tell his story and answer our questions.”
During today’s hearing, Mr. Cohen tried to frame his questioning of Dr. Xenakis to paint a picture that Ghayth was “coerced into making statements” through physical and psychological pressure. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan was skeptical of the line of questioning, pointing out that Dr. Xenakis did not interview Abu Ghayth and is therefore incapable of knowing the defendant’s state of mind at the time and whether he was answering questions truthfully or not. Frustrated by Cohen’s relentless attempt to press his point, Judge Kaplan said, “This is a performance for everyone but the judge in this courtroom.” Kaplan then asked the defense team to wrap up the questioning.
Abu Ghayth sat through the hearing, he said nothing as used headphones to listen to an Arabic translation of the proceedings. The 47-year-old defendant sported a large, mostly gray beard and wore a white Muslim skullcap and a blue prison jumpsuit. Judge Kaplan will soon issue a decision on whether the statements made by Ghayth will be admissible as evidence.