German court rejects sole 9/11 guilty verdict

Retrial ordered because of omission of evidence from al-Qaida suspect

March 05, 2004|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Dirk Laabs | Jeffrey Fleishman and Dirk Laabs,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KARLSRUHE, Germany - A high court overturned the verdict yesterday for the only person convicted in the Sept. 11 attacks and ordered a new trial, citing the lack of testimony from an al-Qaida operative in U.S. custody.

Mounir Motassadeq was found guilty last year and sentenced to 15 years in prison as an accessory to more than 3,000 counts of murder in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. But the German high court here ruled the case against the Moroccan was marred because trial judges reached a verdict without carefully considering the fact that the court did not hear from a crucial witness.

The witness is Ramzi Binalshibh, an al-Qaida lieutenant held by the United States who is believed to have intimate knowledge of the Hamburg cell behind the Sept. 11 hijackings.

Washington refused to disclose transcripts of his interrogation. That decision led Motassadeq's lawyers - claiming Binalshibh would have exonerated their client - to appeal the verdict.

The high court's ruling was the second major setback for German prosecutors in terror trials. Another Moroccan, Abdelghani Mzoudi, was acquitted last month on similar charges when the United States refused to release sensitive intelligence.

The Mzoudi case and the prospect of Motassadeq's retrial underscore the German legal system's frustration with American secrecy and the difficulties encountered in piercing terrorist networks and building strong criminal cases.

"The fight against terrorism cannot be a wild war without rules," presiding Judge Klaus Tolksdorf said in announcing Motassadeq's retrial. "A conflict between the security interests of the [state] and the rights to defense of the accused cannot be resolved to the disadvantage of the accused."

The judge said the trial court erred, but added that Motassadeq, was a radical Islamist "far from being beyond suspicion."

That comment resembled remarks by the presiding judge in Mzoudi's case, who had said the acquittal was "no reason for joy" and came not because the court believed Mzoudi was innocent but because there wasn't enough evidence against him.

`A good decision'

Motassadeq, who is imprisoned in Hamburg, did not attend yesterday's proceedings. His lawyer, Josef Graessle-Muenscher, said of the ruling: "It is a good decision and it shows that Motassadeq was sentenced in an unjust way. ... If there is nothing dramatically new at the retrial, Mr. Motassadeq must be acquitted."

The United States and Germany hailed Motassadeq's highly publicized arrest in November 2001 as a critical test of prosecuting al-Qaida members. The electrical engineering student studied in Hamburg and was friends with Mohamed Atta. Motassadeq was convicted as an accessory to murder after testimony that he trained in an al-Qaida camp, wired money to at least one terrorist operative in the United States and provided other logistical support to the hijackers.

Mzoudi faced similar charges. He was acquitted after the trial court learned that an unidentified witness - reportedly Binalshibh - told American investigators that the Hamburg cell included four members: Binalshibh, Atta, and hijackers Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Sammir Jarrah.

The Binalshibh statements, according to Graessle-Muenscher, "say that neither Mzoudi nor Motassadeq took part in preparing the 9/11 attacks."

A sensitive position

The high court acknowledged that the Motassadeq case placed the German legal system in a sensitive predicament. U.S. intelligence, which shared the Binalshibh interrogations with German counterparts, did not want the transcripts made public for national security reasons. But, the court said, the lack of disclosure prevented prosecutors from gathering enough evidence to sustain a conviction.

Judge Tolksdorf questioned why the United States allowed an FBI agent to testify against Motassadeq but blocked Binalshibh's statements. "I don't want to speculate that the U.S. did this to assure the desired result of the trial," the judge said, noting later that German authorities should attempt to have the Binalshibh transcripts introduced at the retrial.

German Interior Minister Otto Schily said the high court's "decision is regrettable, but it is actually just a hand-back to the criminal court in Hamburg."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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