MANHATTAN (CN) – The lawyer for the Libyan accused of participating in the 1998 bombing of two U.S. Embassies in East Africa could have a “potential conflict of interest” because of the secret foreign government entity funding his defense, a federal judge said in a hearing Wednesday morning.
Bernard Kleinman has represented Nazih Abdul Hamed al Ruqai, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Anas al-Libi, since October, days after U.S. Delta Force operatives snatched him in his home in Tripoli, Libya to stand trial in New York.
Al Ruqai is charged with scouting U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as twin targets of al-Qaida bombings that killed 224 people and injured thousands in 1998.
Pleading not guilty, the Libyan revealed early in pretrial proceedings that he had a serious medical condition that cut short his post-capture interrogation aboard the U.S.S. Antonio, a Navy warship.
Kleinman wrote in a letter to the court last week that his client is “terminally ill,” and that prosecutors now “seek to have [his] counsel conflicted out of the case” because of a “third party fee arrangement” that they learned about nine months ago.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Lewin first raised the issue in a hearing on Oct. 11, 2013, according to the letter.
“We obviously can’t confirm it nor do we seek more information,” Lewin said, according to the transcript quoted in the letter. “But while those [financial] arrangements are, of course, in most cases or in many cases perfectly proper, they can occasion issues that should be reviewed by the court.”
Nine months later, prosecutors raised the issue again just four months shy of al Ruqai’s trial on Nov. 3, Kleinman said.
This “inexcusable dilatory delay” would set trial back “many, many months” if a new lawyer were assigned to his client, he added.
On Wednesday morning, the lawyers convened in a Manhattan federal courtroom, where al Ruqai appeared via closed circuit feed from a medical center in North Carolina. He spoke to the court and his lawyer through an interpreter seated in the jury box. His face appeared gaunt, especially in contrast to his fulsome beard, and he often grabbed his head often throughout the video feed.
Kleinman argued that his client should be able to finish his treatment and appear in court before any discussion over the fate of his legal representation.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who presides over all the embassy bombing cases, granted the government’s request to begin grilling Kleinman about his funding arrangements immediately, which he said were necessary for “ensuring the integrity of the proceedings.”
Much of the preliminary questioning remained secret throughout the hearing.
Declining to reveal al Ruqai’s funder in open court, Kleinman wrote down the identities of the people he described as representatives of a foreign government entity funding his client’s legal defense. He then handed the folded piece of paper to the deputy, who passed it along to Kaplan.
The funder had no interference in defense legal strategy, and his client knew its identity, Kleinman said.
At the end of the grilling, Kaplan said that there was “at least a potential conflict of interest” and called for another hearing on the topic next month.
Kaplan warned that, “in light of various things that appeared in the press of late,” Kleinman should not speak about his client’s medical issues or other sealed and classified topics on the public record.
“I’m not saying that you have done either,” he clarified. “I’m just saying: Keep it in mind.”
Various news outlets reported revelations of al Ruqai’s terminal illness last week.
Denying the implication, Kleinman said that he was “fully aware of my obligations to my client and the court” and that he has “not violated any of the rules.”
The press and public were then shut out of court for proceedings to end in a closed session. The parties are expected to reconvene in August, pending al Ruqai’s medical status.
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