Appeals court makes stunning decision on Benghazi plotter’s sentence

A U.S. appeals court ruled that a Libyan man’s 22-year imprisonment sentence is lenient. A Libyan man, known as Ahmed Abu Khatallah, was sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment for his role in the 2012 Benghazi attack on U.S. intelligence and diplomatic facilities, during a trial in 2018. Khatallah appealed his conviction, and the government cross-appealed it.

This week the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the government and reversed the original 22-year sentence, suggesting 30 years to life in prison. “Khatallah’s sentence is substantively unreasonably low in light of the gravity of his crimes of terrorism,” reads the court’s statement.

The attack had place in September 2012 when the gunmen overcame security guards and killed four Americans at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. During the initial trial Khatallah was found guilty on several counts of conspiracy such as “providing material support to terrorists”, as well as destruction of property that endangered others and using a semiautomatic weapon during a crime of violence. However, he was cleared of the most serious charges related to the deaths of the Americans.

Although U.S. District Court Judge Christopher Cooper could have imposed a greater sentence on Khatallah, he went with the lesser sentence of 22 years, explaining his decision in part by not relying on the charges Khatallah was acquitted of. The government officials pointed out that the imposed 22-year sentence was improperly low.

Now, the Appeals Court panel agreed with the government. While there’s still no strong link between Khatallah and the deaths of Americans on the U.S. intelligence and diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, the appeals court panel’s opinion said a reasonable juror could “still find that Khatallah was liable for placing Americans’ lives in jeopardy.”

“There was overwhelming evidence that Khatallah’s co-conspirators attacked the Mission while Americans were present, but there is a much weaker link between Khatallah and the deaths at the Villa,” the court document said. “So it was eminently sensible for the jury to find both that Khatallah was responsible for endangering American lives and that there was reasonable doubt that he was responsible for any deaths.”

“In sentencing Khatallah to just twelve years for the two support-of-terrorism counts and the property destruction count, the district court did not — and could not on this record — sufficiently justify its additional variance so far below the sentencing range that would have been appropriate even without any consideration of acquitted conduct,” the appeal court’s decision reads.

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The appeals court panel said the district court did not properly justify the reduction in Khatallah’s sentence, as it went “far lower than discounting acquitted conduct alone could support.”

The appeals court consisted of D.C. Circuit Judges Patricia Millett, Neomi Rao and Greg Katsas. Millett was appointed by President Barack Obama, while Katsas and Rao by President Donald Trump. They unanimously overturned the district judge’s sentence and instructed Judge Cooper to re-sentence Khatallah.

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However, Khatallah’s attorneys could ask the full bench of the D.C. Circuit to rehear the case or take their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.


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