WASHINGTON (CN) – Stunning a courtroom full of prosecutors who had pushed for life in prison, a federal judge handed a 22-year sentence Wednesday to a Libyan man who helped attack the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
Though acquitted in November of the most serious charges related to the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, Ahmed Abu Khatallah was found guilty by a jury on four of 18 counts.
“What would it say to those 12 people if I significantly increased your sentence,” U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper said this morning, speaking to Khatallah of his jury.
Cooper emphasized that 47-year-old Khatallah’s case stands for the principle that a terrorism suspect can get a fair trial in the United States.
“One of the cornerstones in the American justice system is the jury,” he said.
Khatallah’s sentencing closes a chapter to the saga that unfolded nearly six years ago the night of Sept. 11, 2012, when insurgents overran the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, setting a blaze that ultimately caused Stevens and U.S. Foreign Service officer Sean Smith to die of smoke inhalation.
Early the next morning, CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods perished in a separate mortar attack at a nearby CIA annex.
The jury acquitted Khatallah of any role in the second attack, and Khatallah denies that he was at the diplomatic compound either while the attack was underway.
Jeffrey Robinson, an attorney for Khatallah with the firm Lewis Baach, has argued consistently that Khatallah was in the vicinity of the compound on the night of the attacks because he had been drawn by the commotion, like many other local Libyans.
At the sentencing hearing Wednesday, Judge Cooper heard a push to give Khatallah the maximum sentence from Dorothy Woods, who had been married to one of the slain CIA contractors. Tyrone Woods.
“Your honor, your sentencing sends a message to the men and women on the front lines of the war on terror,” Dorothy Woods added.
In a separate statement to the court, Tyrone’s father, Charles, described his son as an “awesome young man.”
“He loved his country and he loved his teams,” Charles Woods said. “And that’s why he went to Benghazi.”
He too asked for the maximum sentence.
“As an unrepentant terrorist, he needs to be prevented from every killing Americans again,” Charles Woods said of Khatallah.
Cooper acknowledged the victim family members and their grief while he announced his sentence, and he cited the historic significance of trying someone accused of killing a U.S. ambassador in an American courtroom.
“Anyone who says the federal court system can’t handle a high-profile terrorism case obviously didn’t come watch this one,” Cooper said.
Khatallah was convicted of one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and another count of providing material support to terrorists. The jury also convicted him of property destruction that endangered others and using a semiautomatic weapon during a crime of violence.
Khatallah’s defense team had argued that, in determining their client’s sentence, Cooper should stick purely to the counts of conviction. Cooper’s ruling today stands in contrast to his insistence last week that he would keep sentencing enhancements on the table. Calling it a controversial practice, Cooper emphasized that sentencing guidelines allowed him to also consider facts for which the jury expressly acquitted the Libyan.
Cooper said Wednesday it would have been an error not to consider those facts in determining Khatallah’s sentence.
Though the jury did not find beyond a reasonable doubt that Khatallah’s participation in the attack on the diplomatic compound resulted in death, Cooper said last week that a preponderance of the evidence bore this claim out.
On Wednesday Cooper reiterated his belief that Khatallah was involved in the attack.
“I simply did not believe that you were an innocent bystander the night of Sept. 11, 2001 – 2012,” Cooper said, correcting himself.
But Khatallah’s precise role in the attack, Cooper said, is one of the many questions that went unanswered after seven weeks of trial.
“I don’t know if you were the main planner of the attack,” Cooper said. The judge called it unclear as well whether Khatallah knew Stevens was on the compound, whether he intended to kill anyone or what his role in the attack on the annex was later that night.
Defense attorney Robinson urged Cooper meanwhile to consider a fuller picture of his client before sentencing Khatallah.
“American justice is not American vengeance” he said.
Prosecutors had asked the court to consider Khatallah’s criminal background in Libya, where he spent a decade imprisoned by deceased Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Robinson pointed out however that Khatallah was imprisoned for his religious beliefs during Gadhafi’s 41-year reign.
“He’s not the monster that the government portrays,” Robinson said.
The attorney declined to comment on the sentence after the hearing.
Khatallah has been denied bail since his capture by U.S. commandos in overnight raid that took place from June 14 to 15, 2014 – lured to a beach house near Benghazi by a Libyan informant whom the government paid a $7 million reward, and who served as the prosecution’s star witness. Judge Cooper said Wednesday that the four years Khatallah has served will further reduce his sentence.
At trial, the government painted Khatallah as the leader of an anti-Western brigade, Ubaydah bin Jarrah, that sought to impose Islamic law in post-revolution Libya. They argued that Khatallah helped plan, lead and carry out the 2012 attacks to help expel any U.S presence in eastern Libya, and portrayed him as anti-American.
Pushing this claim again on Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiLorenzo accused Khatallah of leading the attack that killed the four Americans.
The U.S. mission in Libya had focused on building diplomatic bridges, but these goals never came to fruition, DiLorenzo said. “In part because of this man,” he added, pointing at Khatallah.
Khatallah’s attorneys filed a motion for mistrial based on the government’s appeal to “jingoism” and “nationalist sentiments,” but Cooper denied the motion, saying the jury did not take that bait.
One of Khatallah’s alleged associates, Mustafa al-Imam, also faces prosecution in a U.S. courtroom by Khatallah’s prosecutors: Assistant U.S. Attorneys John Crabb, Michael DiLorenzo, Opher Shweiki and Julieanna Himelstein.
No trial date has yet been set for al-Imam.