RICHMOND, Va. — A Russian man charged with leading a Taliban attack against U.S. forces in Afghanistan pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges Friday and was ordered held until his April 13 trial.
Irek Hamidullin was arraigned on 12 counts, including providing material support to terrorists, trying to destroy U.S. military aircraft and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction. Half of the charges are punishable by up to life in prison. Attorney General Eric Holder chose not to seek the death penalty for the weapon of mass destruction charge, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Gillis said at the 15-minute hearing.
Hamidullin is the first military detainee from Afghanistan to be brought to the U.S. for trial. His transfer represents the latest attempt by the Obama administration to show that it can use the criminal court system to deal with terror suspects — a move criticized by some Republican lawmakers who believe such cases should be handled by military tribunals.
U.S. officials say Hamidullin is a Russian veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan who stayed in the country and joined the Taliban. He was captured in 2009 after an attack on Afghan border police and U.S. soldiers in Khowst province. He had been held at the U.S. Parwan detention facility at Bagram airfield before being brought to the U.S.
"I am not guilty," Hamidullin said when U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson asked for his plea. Hamidullin asked for a jury trial, which Gillis estimated would last about five days.
Without hearing any evidence beyond what is in court papers, Hudson ordered Hamidullin to remain in the custody of U.S. marshals. He said detention is warranted because of the nature of the charges, Hamidullin's lack of connections to the U.S., and his alleged affiliation with a foreign terrorist organization.
Hamidullin appeared in shackles amid heavy security. He speaks English but was assisted by an Arabic translator.
Federal public defender Robert Wagner asked that his client's be removed at future court appearances. Hudson said he would consult with marshals.
Wagner also said Hamidullin wanted officials to change the spelling of his last name to "Khamidullah." Hudson said he would order that spelling added as an alias and would call the defendant by that name at future proceedings.
According to the 19-page indictment, Hamidullin was an officer and tank commander in the Russian military during the 1980s and was trained in the use of such weapons as anti-aircraft machine guns and portable rockets. He became affiliated with the Taliban in 2001.
The indictment says Hamidullin commanded three groups of insurgents that attacked Afghan border police at Camp Leyza, one of six locations the Taliban had identified as possible targets. He directed insurgents armed with anti-aircraft machine guns to fire at U.S. military helicopters responding to the attack, the indictment says, and later used a machine gun to shoot at U.S. troops and Afghan border police assessing damage at the battle site.
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan has said the decision to transfer Hamidullin was made in light of the agreement by the U.S. that it will turn over all prisons in Afghanistan to the Afghan government by 2015. 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.