Despite this ailment, the ponytailed criminal defense lawyer was alert and combative during an interview at his Avenue D loft and residence, especially when asked about client Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti-born Islamic preacher and son-in-law of Osama Bin Laden who was convicted March 26 of conspiracy to kill Americans. The imam and religious teacher was also found guilty of plotting to provide material support to terrorists, and doing so.
Federal prosecutors characterized Abu Ghaith, 48, as an Al Qaeda propagandist and top Bin Laden advisor who was summoned to Bin Laden’s Afghan cave on the evening of September 11, 2011 and who praised the terrorist attacks in oratory the next day. In one of two of videos of Abu Ghaith broadcast on Al Jazeera television and shown at trial, he appeared to be expressing joy a month after hijacked planes had slammed into the World Trade Center, warning that the “storms shall not stop, especially the airplane storms.”
“So what if he was joyful?” snapped Cohen, 63, while his labrador retriever, Emily Rose, curled up on the floor beside him. “I get joyful about shit every day of the week! What the fuck does that prove? I don’t believe words like that constitute a conspiracy to murder Americans.” He claimed not a single military witness at the six-week trial identified Abu Ghaith as “anyone of importance” to Al Qaeda, the international jihadist network.
“The whole case is crap,” Cohen went on during a follow-up telephone conversation Sunday. “The government desperately needed to try Osama and they took this guy, a deer in the headlights at the wrong place and at the wrong time, and turned him into an 800-pound gorilla.”He noted that prosecutors mentioned Bin Laden’s name at least 200 times during the trial and played a 10-minute video of the twin towers burning. Given that lurid scenario, did he really expect any other verdict for Abu Ghaith from an anonymous jury in a lower Manhattan courtroom, just blocks from ground zero?
“I thought there was a chance for a hung jury because there was enough reasonable doubt,” Cohen said. “But I had a federal jury system and anonymous jurors and got stuck with the worst. When you get state jurors, you can question them more. I wanted to ask these jurors questions about the people they worked for and their views on religion. Half of this jury seemed asleep.”
Abu Ghaith’s indictment states he arranged to be “successfully smuggled” from Afghanistan to Iran in 2002 where he stayed for at least 10 years. Cohen said he married Osama bin Laden’s daughter, Fatima, in 2008. In January of 2013, he surfaced in Turkey, but was deported to his native Kuwait which had stripped him of citizenship after his 9/ll videos. During a stop in Jordan, he was arrested by Jordanian officials and turned over to U.S. authorities and flown to New York to face charges. In a pre-trial hearing last year, Abu Ghaith, who entered a not guilty plea, asked U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan to appoint Cohen as his attorney over a public defender.
Cohen led a six-member defense team on the sensational case, the first of its kind involving a senior Bin Laden associate to be tried in a civilian court in the United States. Cohen said he will duly appeal Abu Ghaith’s conviction after Judge Kaplan sentences him on September 8. He seems certain his client will get a life sentence. “If you had a speeding ticket and your name was Mohammed, Kaplan would give you life,” he joked.
In a more somber tone, Cohen claimed Kaplan’s purported “impatience and willingness that this be an Amtrak express case shows an insensitivity to the complexity of these kinds of cases… They’re not like drug cases.They take time to prepare and flesh out.” Surprisingly, he believes a military tribunal would offer his client a better deal. “I think [Abu Ghaith] would end up with a better sentence as an enemy combatant. I do not support Guantanamo. But putting aside the torture, the inhumane treatment and the endless detention, those people tried by the military have fared far better than in the U.S. courts.”
A key piece of Cohen’s appeal will involve Judge Kaplan’s rejection of the defense team’s application to depose Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-styled mastermind of 9/ll detained at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. naval base in Cuba. Meanwhile, Abu Ghaith remains at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center on Park Row. Cohen expects him to be transferred after sentencing to a maximum security “underground” prison in Florence, Colorado.
Cohen has his own legal problems. A 2012 federal indictment announced by the U.S. Attorney in the Northern District accused him of impeding the tax code. In late 2103, an indictment in the Southern District charged him with failing to report $3 million in income from clients from 2006 to 2010.
“I don’t care about them,” he said of the two indictments. “I think they’re politically motivated and they come as no surprise. I’m not losing any sleep over them. More than 20 years ago, I was indicted in Canada for seditious conspiracy” — while he was representing Mohawk warriors. He said he was defended by a Canadian lawyer and the indictment was dismissed.
Cohen, a former social worker, is married to a Mohawk Indian and shares an upstate “cottage” with her in Jeffersonville. He said he’s not politically active in the East Village these days but expressed concern about the neighborhood where he has lived since 1988.
“Avenues B and C are gentrified but Avenue D is still Avenue D, still the projects,” he said. “We have the highest rate of asthma in New York City. You go outside and you can see kids with brochial inhalators.”