WASHINGTON — A Libyan man snatched by U.S. Special Operations forces outside his home in Tripoli this month was brought to the United States over the weekend, U.S. officials said Monday, explaining that a chronic medical condition prevented them from keeping him detained aboard a Navy ship any longer.
Lawmakers and national security experts had anticipated that Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, better known by his alias Anas al-Libi, who is charged in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, would be held at sea for a lengthy period while a senior team of U.S. interrogators attempted to debrief him.
Al-Libi needed specialized medical treatment that was unavailable aboard the USS San Antonio, the warship where he was being questioned, a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
“He has several chronic, preexisting health conditions,” the U.S. official said. “The extent only became clear after his capture.”
Al-Libi’s wife told CNN in an interview that her husband, who was captured Oct. 5, is infected with hepatitis C, which damages the liver.
The U.S. official said al-Libi was undergoing a medical evaluation in the New York area and could be arraigned as early as Tuesday if he is discharged in time. The official did not provide details about the severity of al-Libi’s problems.
Al-Libi’s arrival in the United States cut short a debate over how long the government could reasonably keep him at sea and whether it should prosecute him in federal court.
Some lawmakers argued that a lengthy detention overseas under the laws of war was legitimate and represented the best chance of obtaining information from al-Libi about the evolution of al-Qaida and new militant groups in North Africa. They suggested that he be sent to the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, although the Obama administration has pledged not to send new detainees to the facility, which it wants to close.
Defense lawyers and constitutional rights activists, meanwhile, pressed for a speedy arraignment. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, applauded the decision to formally arrest and prosecute al-Libi. He said that sending al-Libi to Guantanamo would have been “unnecessary and unwise.”
“The United States is the most powerful nation in the world, and we have a justice system that is second to none,” Leahy said in a statement Monday. “We are not afraid of terrorists, nor are we afraid to bring them to justice in our courts.”
Spokesmen for the Pentagon and the Justice Department declined to say whether al-Libi had been cooperative with interrogators. The Obama administration dispatched the FBI-led High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group to the USS San Antonio to question al-Libi.
U.S interrogators have more latitude to hold and question terrorism suspects under the laws of war before they are formally arrested, transferred into the civilian court system, and advised of their right to consult a lawyer and right against self-incrimination.
Al-Libi arrived Saturday in New York, where he was remanded to the custody of federal law enforcement officers. He was indicted more than a decade ago in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The indictment, filed in the Southern District of New York, accuses al-Libi of conducting surveillance of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and helping to develop photos that were later used to plan a massive truck bombing. The blast killed more than 200 people.
Al-Libi was one of Osama bin Laden’s senior aides during the formative years of al-Qaida, and he spent time with the late terrorism leader in Sudan and Afghanistan. He lived in Britain during the late 1990s after obtaining political asylum there. Al-Libi later spent several years in Iran before returning to his native Libya in 2011 to participate in the revolt against Moammar Gadhafi.
Four of al-Libi’s co-defendants were convicted of carrying out the embassy bombings in a 2001 trial in New York. All were sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of two former al-Qaida members who became U.S. informants.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to say Monday whether the two witnesses remain in the United States or whether they would be available to testify against al-Libi.
Last week, the federal public defender’s office in New York asked a federal judge to appoint a lawyer for al-Libi, saying that there was no “lawful basis for the delay in his appearance and the appointment of counsel.”
Prosecutors opposed that request, saying that public defenders are appointed only after criminal defendants have appeared in court and demonstrated that they cannot hire one.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan sided with the government, saying he could not appoint a lawyer while it remained unclear whether the government would prosecute al-Libi