The Obama administration is preparing to transfer a military detainee in Afghanistan for criminal trial in Virginia, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The move would mark the first time a military detainee from Afghanistan was brought to the U.S. for trial, and it represents the Obama administration’s latest attempt to show that it can use the criminal court system to deal with terror suspects.
The prisoner, known by the nom de guerre Irek Hamidullan, is a Russian veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan who defected to the Taliban and stayed in the country, U.S. officials said. He was captured in 2009 after an attack on Afghan border police and U.S. soldiers in Khost province, officials said.
He has been held at the U.S. Parwan detention facility at Bagram airfield ever since. He faces up to life in prison on several charges relating to the 2009 attack, and faces trial in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, outside Washington. Prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia, where the case would be tried, have handled several high-profile terror prosecutions including that of Sept. 11, 2001, conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.
The congressional and administration officials who discussed the matter would do so only on condition of anonymity because it remained classified. Congress was notified Friday that a prisoner was going to be transferred for trial, but lawmakers were given few details, several congressional aides said.
The move is likely to spark criticism from Republican lawmakers, many of whom believe that military detainees should only be tried in military courts, and that criminal prosecutions of terror suspects undermine the notion that the U.S. is at war with al-Qaida and other extremists.
Trying foreign combatants in the American criminal justice system is a complex endeavor, occurring years after an attack and relying on evidence pulled from sometimes-hostile countries.
But such a prosecution would be in keeping with the Obama administration’s goal of trying terror suspects in federal court whenever possible, where Attorney General Eric Holder has said they are likely to receive swifter justice. Despite an abandoned 2009 plan to prosecute professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and several other Guantánamo Bay detainees in New York City, the Justice Department has won a series of convictions in federal courts against terror suspects. A federal judge in New York, for instance, recently sent Osama bin Laden’s spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, to prison for life.
The administration, meanwhile, is pursuing a criminal case against Ahmed Abu Khattala, the suspected ringleader of the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya. He was seized in a secret raid in Libya in June and pleaded not guilty in federal court in Washington last week to charges that could carry the death penalty.
Holder has said the successful prosecutions have affirmed the capability of federal courts to handle terror suspects. The case against Mohammed is stuck in pretrial wrangling at the U.S.’ Guantánamo detention center in Cuba, where the U.S. currently stages its military commissions.
The U.S. has signed an agreement to turn over Afghan prisoners to the government in Kabul, but as of last month there were 13 non-Afghan detainees at Parwan. The Obama administration is facing pressure to transfer those detainees before December, when the U.S.-led NATO combat mission ends.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.