NEW YORK – A terror suspect's legal defense — underwritten by the Libyan government — is getting scrutiny from a federal judge, who advised him Thursday to consider the possibility of conflicting interests in a case stemming from al-Qaida's deadly 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
After an hourlong, sometimes circuitous interchange with the judge via an Arabic-language interpreter, Abu Anas al-Libi agreed to take the judge's advice of consulting another lawyer, though al-Libi said he didn't sense any actual conflict. He is due to say next month whether he'd like to stick with his attorney, Bernard Kleinman, who says the Libyan government has financed the defense but hasn't steered it.
"I've received no direction, no agenda," he said. "There's no evidence whatsoever that any conflict exists."
A message left with the Libyan Embassy in Washington wasn't immediately returned. Prosecutors declined to comment.
Grabbed off the streets of Tripoli in October in a U.S. raid the Libyan government called a "kidnapping," al-Libi was once on the FBI's list of most wanted terrorists. Also known as Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, he has pleaded not guilty to charges that he conspired in simultaneous attacks on embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans. His family and former associates have denied he was ever a member of al-Qaida.
It's legal for a third party to pay for someone's defense in a criminal case, as long as courts are satisfied that the attorney's loyalties aren't divided and that the defendant understands there could be a potential for conflict.
Al-Libi, a 50-year-old Libyan citizen, said his family had been involved in choosing Kleinman and arranging for the Libyan government to pay him. The defendant, who had been an activist opposed to former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, said he didn't believe there was "any conflict between my interest and the interest of the Libyan state since the fall of Gadhafi."
But U.S. District Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan suggested there could be, at least hypothetically. He pointed to a New York Times report in October that, citing unnamed senior American officials, said the Libyan government had tacitly approved the commando raid in which he was captured, despite Tripoli's public denunciations of the operation.
Noting that he couldn't speak to the veracity of the report, the judge asked al-Libi whether he understood that if true, it could mean that at least some officials in the government paying for his defense had quietly accepted his arrest.
"Theoretically, everything is possible, but this never became apparent to me, and if it does, I will not accept it," al-Libi said during an extended exchange of repeated questions and answers.
However theoretical the potential for a conflict of interest, "most people would consider it very prudent to get a second opinion," Kaplan told him.
Eventually, al-Libi agreed to have a lawyer appointed to discuss the issue with him, saying he understood Kaplan wanted to make sure his interests were being served.
"And that's nice of the judge," he added.