By Adekunle aliyu, with Agency report
A not guilty plea has been entered on behalf of a Nigerian man charged with attempting to blow up a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was arraigned Friday on six charges. The most severe carries up to life in prison â€” the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
Friday’s hearing was brief. Abdulmutallab walked into the courtroom wearing a white T-shirt, pants and tennis shoes.
He answered “yes” in English when asked if he understood the charges against him.
After that, his lawyer said Abdulmutallab would stand mute to the charges. The U.S. magistrate judge said a not guilty plea would be entered on his behalf.
The young Nigerian man arrived at federal court in Detroit Friday for his arraignment on charges that he failed to detonate a chemical-laden explosive on the Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight.
Experts say that with so much evidence stacked against Abdulmutallab, his defense team is left with few options as the case moves forward.
Attorneys outside the case say the 23-year-old’s lawyers can challenge incriminating statements to the FBI, seek a mental-health exam for Abdulmutallab â€” and seriously consider a plea deal.
“This is not a case of mistaken identity or a whodunit. For the defense, it’s damage control,” said Joseph Niskar, a defense lawyer who was involved in a 2001 terrorism case in Detroit that fell apart for the government.
A federal grand jury has indicted Abdulmutallab this week on six charges, including one that could put him away for life: the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction to kill nearly 300 people.
That weapon, according to the government, was an explosive hidden under his clothing. The FBI says Abdulmutallab tried to detonate it with a syringe of chemicals.
U.S. Marshals Service said Abdulmutallab arrived at the courthouse Friday in a dark Chevy SUV that drove into an underground entrance. The vehicle was led and followed by police cars with flashing lights and short siren blasts.
Outside the court, authorities set up metal barricades outside the courthouse and limiting foot traffic in the area. A protester stood holding a sign that read: “No U.S. Rights For Terrorists.” A few others gathered including a handful of local Muslim community members who held an American flag and a sign saying: “Not in the name of Islam.”
Maryam Uwais, a lawyer in Nigeria, and Mahmud Kazaure, a lawyer from Maryland, told The Associated Press at the courthouse that they were sent by Abdulmutallab’s family to observe Friday’s arraignment. Neither have a role in the case, but both spoke briefly with the suspect’s legal team. They declined to further comment.
Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, has said Abdulmutallab would be offered a plea deal in exchange for valuable information about his contacts in Yemen and elsewhere.
Abdulmutallab’s lawyer, Detroit‘s top federal defender Miriam Siefer, declined to comment Friday, and Detroit’s new U.S. attorney, Barbara McQuade, said no offer has been made yet.
“We’ll take the case one step at a time,” said McQuade, who handled national security cases before her promotion. “If he wants to plead guilty he has the right to do that. … We need to prepare as if this case is going to trial.”
Some attorneys, however, doubt that Abdulmutallab would really want to help the United States by cooperating with investigators.
“A person who wants to blow himself up in an airplane over Detroit is not looking to shave some time off in the big house,” said Lloyd Meyer, a former terrorism prosecutor at the Guantanamo Bay prison. “I have no doubt he will welcome the world stage of a federal courtroom. They want a public forum. They want the spotlight to show why they are holy warriors against the great Satan.”
Since the failed attack, security at airports in the U.S. and around the world has tightened as the Obama administration acknowledged government missteps in the near-catastrophe.
Obama said Thursday that the government had the information that might have prevented the botched attack but failed to piece it together. He announced about a dozen changes designed to fix that, including new terror watch list guidelines and wider and quicker distribution of intelligence reports.
Several experts pointed to the difficulties facing Siefer and her team as they defend Abdulmutallab. They didn’t get the case until he was charged the day after the failed attack. By then he had talked to investigators about training with al-Qaida operatives in Yemen.
“They may be able to challenge his statements, whether he was given Miranda rights,” said Keith Corbett, a former organized-crime prosecutor in Detroit. But beyond any incriminating words, “you still have a large number of witnesses who saw things in a confined space. That’s going to pose a serious problem to the defense.”
Indeed, with the syringe, the fire, explosive material, burns and other evidence, “it’s almost a classic smoking gun case â€” a smoking pants case,” Steingold said.
In announcing the indictment Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the investigation already had produced “valuable intelligence” about the failed attack.
But the more time that elapses, the less valuable his information could be for any plea deal, Corbett said.
“If he cuts a deal in six months, he’s had no contact (with foreign allies) for six months. The answer lies in what information he has, like names, training facilities,” Corbett said. “For any significant reduction in his sentence, he would have to be in a position of giving the government what it really wants.”