By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The son-in-law of Osama bin Laden and former spokesman for al Qaeda, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to kill Americans, was warned on Tuesday that his three chosen lawyers may not get clearance to review classified evidence in the case.
A federal judge in New York told Suleiman Abu Ghaith, one of the highest-ranking al Qaeda figures to face trial in the United States for crimes related to the September 11, 2001, attacks, that legal issues and, for one lawyer, a disability, could prevent them from getting the needed clearance.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan warned Abu Ghaith, 47, on Tuesday that proceeding with the lawyers with these potential conflicts "is a mistake, that it is against your interests."
The lawyers included Stanley L. Cohen, a political activist under indictment in the Northern District of New York for tax-related charges, and Ashraf Nubani, who is legally blind.
The third lawyer is Geoffrey Stewart, who in 2010 reached a settlement with then-New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo that barred him from practicing immigration law after non-lawyers at a firm he ran were found to be providing legal advice. Stewart told the judge he admitted no guilt in the settlement.
Prosecutor Michael Ferrara of the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office told Kaplan he had looked at hundreds of cases searching for another example in which a defendant faced identical circumstances, but could find none.
Abu Ghaith, however, said several times that he understood the risks and still wanted the lawyers to represent him.
"In life, every matter has its own risks inherent to it, and I am ready to take that risk," he said through an interpreter. He said in a hearing last week that a brother in Kuwait is funding his defense.
Kaplan said he hoped to decide whether to grant the necessary waiver "very soon."
The judge also warned Abu Ghaith that Cohen could be conflicted because the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office is also investigating him for charges that Cohen said were linked to the tax-related indictment.
Abu Ghaith said he was confident that Cohen, who says he has represented more defendants in terrorism-related cases than any other attorney in the United States, would not be conflicted.
"I would like to thank you for your advice and I wish you good health," Abu Ghaith said to the judge.
After Tuesday's hearing, Cohen said that even if he were not granted security clearance to review classified evidence, he could easily bring in other lawyers, including former federal prosecutors, who would get such clearance.
"I'm not worried about that issue," he said.
A grand jury indicted Cohen in the Northern District of New York in 2012 for tax-related charges, including obstructing and impeding the Internal Revenue Service.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bob Burgdorfer)