By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK, March 8 (Reuters) - A son-in-law of Osama bin Laden and one of the highest-ranking al Qaeda figures to be brought to the United States to face a civilian trial, pleaded not guilty on Friday to a charge of conspiracy to kill Americans.
Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a militant who appeared in videos as a spokesman for al Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, made his initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, only blocks from the site of the World Trade Center.
The balding, bearded Abu Ghaith was led handcuffed into the crowded courtroom, the largest in the courthouse. Dressed in dark blue prison garb, he appeared to follow the proceedings closely, frequently nodding.
Listening by means of an interpreter, he spoke twice, saying "Yes" when Judge Lewis Kaplan asked him if he understood the accusations and "Yes" when asked if he wanted court-appointed lawyers, who entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.
U.S. prosecutors said they expected the trial to last three weeks, but no starting date was scheduled. They said the date would be set at a pre-trial hearing on April 8.
Prosecutors said in court that Abu Ghaith was arrested by U.S. law enforcement on Feb. 28 and brought to the United States on March 1.
He is one of the highest-ranking al Qaeda figures to be brought to the United States to face a civilian trial. Government sources said he was arrested in Turkey.
Evidence against him includes videos and audio recordings, prosecutors said.
"Among other things, Abu Ghaith urged others to swear allegiance to bin Laden, spoke on behalf of and in support of al Qaeda's mission, and warned that attacks similar to those of September 11, 2001 would continue," according to the indictment, which was announced on Thursday.
It accuses him of acting in a conspiracy that "would and did murder United States nationals anywhere in the world," listing actions before and after Sept. 11, 2001.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder previously had announced plans to try defendants in the Sept. 11 attacks in the same federal courthouse where Abu Ghaith appeared. But public opposition forced him to back down, and the trials were moved to the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Grant McCool)