The trial of a Moroccan man accused of helping the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers appeared close to collapse Thursday after the court announced that the German federal police had provided information, apparently taken from the interrogation of a top al Qaeda planner in U.S. custody, that the defendant had no advance knowledge of the plot.
The trial will continue, but presiding Judge Klaus Ruehle released Abdelghani Mzoudi, 31, who has been imprisoned since his arrest in October 2002 on charges of membership of a terrorist organization and more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder. The judge said Mzoudi, alleged to be a member of the Hamburg cell that spearheaded the attacks in the United States, will have to continue to attend the trial but is otherwise free until a verdict is reached.
"There is the serious possibility that Mzoudi was purposefully left out of the attack plans despite his links to the Hamburg group and despite his stay in Afghanistan, and that his supportive actions were not consciously made," Ruehle said.
Motassadeq verdict in jeopardy?
The surprise turn could also undo the guilty verdict a German court returned in February against another Moroccan, Mounir Motassadeq, on the same charges. With that ruling, he became the first person anywhere to be convicted of helping in the Sept. 11 attacks.
In Washington, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft told reporters that he was "disappointed that the case in Germany has taken the turn it has taken." He added that "fortunately, in the United States, we enjoy a legal structure which anticipates the need for protecting both national security and adjudicating the innocence or guilt of individuals who are charged."
Ruehle, citing police information faxed to the court, reported that an unnamed witness had said that of the cell members who were based in Hamburg, only the suicide pilots — Mohamed Atta, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah — and Ramzi Binalshibh knew of the plan for the hijackings.
Ruehle said in court that he believed the unnamed witness was Binalshibh, a citizen of Yemen who was arrested in Pakistan on the first anniversary of the attacks, and is believed by investigators to have been one of the plot's central planners. Binalshibh is being held at a secret location by U.S. authorities.
Ratcheting up pressure on U.S.
The decision by the panel of five judges in Hamburg will increase pressure on the United States to release Binalshibh's interrogation transcripts so that his credibility can be assessed. If his statement were found to lack credibility, the court might ignore it and move to convict Mzoudi. Without such disclosure, the court could dismiss the cases against Mzoudi and Motassadeq solely on the strength of the police statement, lawyers said.
The judge said that because the court had no opportunity to question Binalshibh or review transcripts of his interrogations, it had no way to know how believable he is.
Under German law, authorities who become aware of potentially exculpatory evidence are required to report it to the court.
Prosecutors argued successfully in the Motassadeq case that the defendant knew what Atta and other members of the Hamburg cell were planning and willingly assisted them by transferring money to the United States and providing other services. Both Mzoudi and Motassadeq maintain that whatever help they gave was unwitting.
The three pilots and Binalshibh "did not speak with others at any time about 'actual operations or creating a terrorist cell' for furthering the jihad," read the faxed statement from the Bundeskriminalamt, the German equivalent of the FBI.
Motassadeq's attorney said in an interview that he would immediately petition the court to release his client because the information also appeared to exonerate Motassadeq, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
"I think the Germans will have to offer him a major apology and that he will be able to stay here," said the attorney, Josef Graessle-Muenscher, referring to statements by the government that Motassadeq would be deported to Morocco when he completed his sentence. "The Americans should consider what they have caused. Statements they kept secret led to a guilty verdict."
'Am I a free man now?'
A short man with a thick beard and a receding hairline, Mzoudi was present in court Thursday when the decision was announced. He first appeared dumbfounded, as if he did not understand what had been said. He asked his attorneys and interpreter, "Am I a free man now?" according to one defense attorney. "Mr. Mzoudi, you can go home now," Michael Rosenthal told his now-smiling client.
After leaving the courtroom, Mzoudi immediately fell to his knees and prayed, Rosenthal said. "He is still shocked, and we had to explain to him it's not finished," Rosenthal added.
The court's decision infuriated prosecutors. Lead prosecutor Walter Hemberger also said that the unidentified witness could only be Binalshibh and that any evidence from him was probably an attempt to protect others. The federal police's fax did note that the witness had provided contradictory information in the past and that those who went to al Qaeda training camps were taught how to behave if arrested and interrogated.
U.S. officials have turned over selected summaries of Binalshibh's interrogation to the Germans with the understanding that they would not be used in court, German officials said. Because the summaries themselves have not been provided to the court, just a brief communication about them, the German government has kept its side of the bargain.
U.S. set to deny access
Both sides in the trial have been pressing for access to the full material, however. Two weeks ago, German prosecutors asked the court for a delay before ending the evidentiary part of the trial to see if they could produce some of the transcripts. But U.S. officials said in recent interviews that they would continue to refuse such access for the court, citing national security concerns. And in letters to the court Thursday, the office of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the Interior Ministry said the transcripts would remain secret.
An attorney for American co-plaintiffs in the case, relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, said he believed the prosecution's case was now doomed. "We assume that the trial against Mzoudi will . . . end in an acquittal," said Andreas Schulz, a Berlin lawyer hired by a number of relatives to represent their interests in the trial. "Motassadeq will probably be freed." Schulz said he would appeal any such decisions.
A Frenchman facing terrorism charges in U.S. District Court in Alexandria is also demanding access to statements made by key al Qaeda detainees, including Binalshibh, arguing like Mzoudi and Motassadeq that the statements could exonerate him. The issue of access to the witnesses has stalled the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was charged in December 2001 with conspiring with al Qaeda in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Finn reported from Berlin. Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.