Man convicted in 9/11 plot freed to await new trial

Judge overturned verdict because the United States withheld evidence in case

April 08, 2004|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Jeffrey Fleishman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BERLIN - The only person convicted in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was released from a German prison yesterday while he awaits a new trial on charges that he assisted hijackers linked to an al-Qaida cell.

Mounir el Motassadeq, a 30-year-old Moroccan, was sentenced to 15 years in prison last year as an accessory to more than 3,000 counts of murder in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. An appeals court overturned that verdict last month after finding German and U.S. authorities withheld evidence. He had served less than 2 1/2 years of his sentence.

El Motassadeq was shown on German TV smiling as he walked out of Hamburg prison to join his wife and children. His lawyer, Josef Graessle-Muenscher, told reporters: "When I went to pick him up, he was happy. Now he's going home to his family."

Court spokeswoman Sabine Westphalen said el Motassadeq - who had trained in camps in Afghanistan - was no longer considered an "urgent" risk. She said el Motassadeq must remain in Hamburg and check in with police twice a week. His new trial is expected to begin this summer.

The release was another setback for German prosecutors.

In February, a court acquitted el Motassadeq's fellow Moroccan, Abdelghani Mzoudi, of similar charges.

Both men were students at Hamburg University and were accused of providing support to Mohamed Atta and other hijackers based in Hamburg. El Motassadeq and Mzoudi acknowledged that they knew the men but denied knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot.

The court threw out el Motassadeq's conviction based mainly on the absence of evidence from Ramzi Binalshibh, an alleged al-Qaida operative in U.S. custody. The United States refused to provide the German court with transcripts of Binalshibh's interrogations.

Binalshibh has reportedly told U.S. investigators that the Hamburg cell consisted of only four people: Binalshibh, Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah.

El Motassadeq's attorneys argued that such testimony would have exonerated their client. German court officials were angry that Washington - not wanting to release sensitive information for national security reasons - would jeopardize such a high-profile terrorist case.

The matter underscored the complexities of how to prosecute alleged extremists if wiretaps, interrogations and other intelligence cannot be disclosed in court.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the United States was disappointed by the release of el Motassadeq. "We believe the evidence against him is strong, and we believe he is a dangerous guy," said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.

In overturning el Motassadeq's conviction last month, presiding Judge Klaus Tolksdorf said: "The fight against terrorism cannot be a wild war without rules. 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 court's decision infuriated a spokesman for Americans whose relatives were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. Stephen Push said he remains convinced of el Motassadeq's guilt.

"We don't want to see people who are involved in a conspiracy to kill our loved ones go free," said Push, a founder of the New York-based Families of Sept. 11 group.

Push's wife was aboard the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

"These people should be in prison," he said by telephone from Virginia.

Germany's chief federal prosecutor said that he thought the case against el Motassadeq could still be proven in a retrial.

"The charges have not collapsed," Kay Nehm told ARD television. "I still hope that we can get Binalshibh and the other accomplices as witnesses."

Prosecutors allege el Motassadeq knew about the planned attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and helped cell members conceal their involvement while they lived and studied in Hamburg.

They say the former electrical engineering student used his power of attorney over hijacker al-Shehhi's bank account to pay rent, tuition and utility bills, allowing the plotters to keep up the appearance of studying in Germany. He also signed Atta's will.

El Motassadeq explained both as things he simply did for friends.

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

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