Image: Mounir el Motassadeq
Reuters file
Mounir el Motassadeq in February 2003
updated 8/11/2004 6:11:05 AM ET 2004-08-11T10:11:05

A key al-Qaida captive in U.S. custody told interrogators that a Moroccan on trial for helping the Hamburg-based Sept. 11 suicide pilots had no knowledge of the plot, according to a summary read out in court Wednesday.

Mounir el Motassadeq, accused of giving logistical aid to the Hamburg al-Qaida cell that included hijackers Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah, is being retried after his conviction was thrown out in March on appeal.

The appeal court ruled he was unfairly denied testimony from U.S.-held suspects including Ramzi Binalshibh, believed to be the Hamburg cell's contact with al-Qaida. The retrial opened Tuesday with a U.S. pledge to provide evidence, but no direct testimony.

On Wednesday, presiding Judge Ernst-Rainer Schudt said the Hamburg state court had received a fax from the U.S. Justice Department dated Aug. 9, containing summaries of three detainees' interrogations.

Binalshibh said the only members of the Hamburg cell were himself, Atta, al-Shehhi and Jarrah, according to the letter.

He said that "the activities of the Hamburg group were not known to el Motassadeq," it added. The group was "well known by a number of Arab students," but "Binalshibh said that the people in question had no knowledge and were not participants in any facet of the operative plans of Sept. 11."

The impact of Binalshibh's statement wasn't immediately clear. But Judge Schudt said afterward that "we must consider what this means for the trial, and what it means for the volume of evidence we will listen to."

The United States also provided summaries of the interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, believed to have masterminded the Sept. 11 plot, and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian suspected to have been an al-Qaida contact in Germany.

The summary said that the U.S. Justice Department had "doubts" about some of the testimony.

German prosecutors have suggested Binalshibh would not be a credible witness because he might lie to protect el Motassadeq.

U.S. refuses direct contact with suspects
U.S. authorities have said they cannot provide direct contact with suspects including Binalshibh and Mohammed for national security reasons. But in el Motassadeq's first trial, the U.S. government refused to allow even transcripts of interrogations to be admitted as evidence.

El Motassadeq's lawyers are calling for the Hamburg state court to throw out the case, suggesting that any information gathered by U.S. intelligence services might have been obtained through use of torture.

El Motassadeq was freed from prison in April. He is being retried on the same charges -- membership in a terrorist organization and more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder -- for which he was originally sentenced to the maximum 15 years in 2003.

Lack of testimony from Binalshibh or Mohammed also played a large role in the February acquittal in the same court of el Motassadeq's friend and fellow Moroccan Abdelghani Mzoudi, who faced identical charges.

El Motassadeq is accused of helping pay tuition and other bills for members of the Hamburg al-Qaida cell, which included suicide hijackers Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah as well as Atta, to allow them to live as students as they plotted the attacks.

He admitted training in bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan, and witnesses at his first trial testified that he was as radical as the rest of the group, often talking of jihad -- holy war -- and his hatred of Israel and the United States.

He signed Atta's will and had power of attorney over al-Shehhi's bank account.

In the retrial, el Motassadeq is staying with his original  defense: that he knew and was friends with most of the principals  of the Hamburg al-Qaida cell, but was not privy to their deadly  plans.

Mohammed told interrogators that he met el Motassadeq in  Pakistan in late 2000 or early 2001 after Binalshibh asked him to  help el Motassadeq get to an Afghan training camp, according to the summary read out Wednesday.

But Mohammed "said also that no operations were talked about,"  and said he didn't recall hearing anything more of el Motassadeq  until the Moroccan was arrested in Germany after the attacks, it  said.

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