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German court acquits man of aiding 9/11 attack

A German court on Thursday acquitted a Moroccan man accused of helping the Sept. 11 hijackers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Moroccan who signed the will of the lead Sept. 11 hijacker was acquitted Thursday of helping the plotters of the attacks, capping weeks of wrangling by prosecutors trying to salvage their case with new evidence and testimony.

The Hamburg court reluctantly cleared Abdelghani Mzoudi of more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and charges of belonging to a terrorist organization in only the second trial anywhere of a Sept. 11 suspect.

“Mr. Mzoudi, you have been acquitted and this may be a relief to you, but it is no reason for joy,” said presiding Judge Klaus Ruehle, turning to Mzoudi on the defendant’s bench. “You were acquitted not because the court is convinced of your innocence, but because the evidence was not enough to convict you.”

Klaus said the five-judge court — which freed Mzoudi in December on surprise evidence that suggested he had no knowledge of the plot to attack the United States — had to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Prosecutors, who had sought the maximum 15 years in prison, said they would appeal the verdict. Last February, similar evidence secured the maximum sentence on the same charges against Mzoudi’s friend Mounir el Motassadeq, the world’s first Sept. 11 conviction.

Mzoudi signed lead hijacker Mohamed Atta’s will while both studied in Hamburg and moved into an apartment vacated by Atta in 1999.

Prosecutors alleged Mzoudi provided logistical support to the Hamburg al-Qaida cell, helping with financial transactions and arranging housing for members to evade authorities’ attention. Mzoudi spent time at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan in 2000.

His lawyers denied the charges, saying that while their client was friends with many of the Sept. 11 principals, he knew nothing of the plot to attack the United States.

Mzoudi, 31, smiled as he left the courtroom with his jubilant lawyers, shaking his head at reporters’ questions.

His lawyers said he intends to resume his electrical engineering studies in Hamburg. City authorities said they could not move ahead with plans to deport Mzoudi while an appeal is pending.

“It’s a great day for justice,” defense lawyer Michael Rosenthal said.

The presiding judge acknowledged that some might be “bitter” about the outcome. “We know the horror of international terrorism is far from overcome, but this trial was exclusively about the guilt of the defendant,” Ruehle said in explaining the verdict.

Last-ditch motion
The acquittal came after the court rejected a last-ditch motion from a lawyer for relatives of American victims of the attacks. Andreas Schulz said he had “new information” — apparently incriminating Mzoudi — from the U.S. Department of Justice but was “not authorized” to tell the court what it was.

His motion urged the court to again ask U.S. authorities for testimony by Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni believed to be the Hamburg cell’s key contact with al-Qaida, saying there were signs recently that they might release the information.

U.S. authorities persistently refused to grant access to the interrogation transcripts or Binalshibh himself, who has been in secret U.S. custody since his capture in Pakistan on the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Rejecting the motion, Ruehle said he saw no signs that anything had changed. “U.S. authorities are following this trial closely and would immediately inform those involved if they planned to allow new evidence,” Ruehle said.

Stephen Push, spokesman for the New York-based Families of Sept. 11 Organization, whose wife was killed in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, said he was “very upset” by the verdict.

“Somebody dropped the ball here, this acquittal should not have happened,” said Push, one of Schulz’s clients, by telephone from the United States.

Chief federal prosecutor Kay Nehm criticized the U.S. stance, saying it hampered the Hamburg trial; he urged the United States to reconsider. “They must have their reasons, which they did not communicate to us,” he said. “I find this conduct by the United States incomprehensible.”

Unnamed source is key in release
The court ordered Mzoudi freed Dec. 11 after receiving a statement that said the only Hamburg cell members who knew of the plot were hijackers Atta, Binalshibh, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah.

The court — which said the statement’s unnamed source appeared to be Binalshibh — decided it no longer had sufficient grounds to keep Mzoudi behind bars. It said there was no way to cross-examine the Yemeni, so it had to take the statement at face value.

El Motassadeq’s lawyers also focused on Binalshibh last week in seeking a retrial, telling a federal appeals court that he was denied a fair trial in Hamburg because Binalshibh did not testify. A ruling is expected in March.

The Mzoudi verdict had been scheduled for Jan. 22, but prosecutors secured a last-minute delay to allow testimony by a man claiming to be a former Iranian intelligence agent who implicated Mzoudi in the attacks.

The witness, identified by the alias Hamid Reza Zakeri, told German investigators he had information that Mzoudi directly took part in the Sept. 11 plot by channeling information to others involved.