The only person convicted in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States was freed Wednesday pending his retrial on charges of aiding the Hamburg al-Qaida cell that included three of the suicide pilots.
The man, Mounir el Motassadeq, 30, smiled as he left the Hamburg prison where he had been held since November 2001. He walked past reporters without comment before his friends and his lawyer whisked him away in a car to an unknown location.
The attorney, Josef Graessle-Muenscher, said el Motassadeq was returning to his wife and two children in Hamburg.
“When I went to pick him up, he was happy and smiling at me,” Graessle-Muenscher told reporters. “Now he’s going home to his family.”
Explaining the decision, judges said their suspicion that el Motassadeq could be guilty of more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder had lessened. He was ordered to stay in Hamburg and report to police twice a week.
El Motassadeq has acknowledged training at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan and being friends with Hamburg-based hijackers Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah, but he denies any knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot.
He had been serving a maximum 15-year prison term in a Hamburg prison since a court in the city convicted him in February 2003 of giving logistical help to the al-Qaida cell.
Sept. 11 relatives upset
His release was a new setback for prosecutions of Sept. 11 suspects after the same Hamburg court acquitted el Motassadeq’s friend and fellow Moroccan, Abdelghani Mzoudi, of identical charges in February.
Adam Ereli, a spokesman for the State Department, said the United States was disappointed by the development. “We believe the evidence against him is strong, and we believe he is a dangerous guy,” Ereli told reporters in Washington.
Asked whether the United States had asked German authorities to take additional steps to monitor el Motassadeq, Ereli replied: “Not that I am aware of.”
Steven Push, a representative of families of Sept. 11 victims, called the decision “very disappointing.”
“From what I can tell, proper procedures were not followed by the prosecutors. I hope that they can do a better job in a subsequent trial and put him back behind bars,” Push said from Virginia.
An appeals court last month threw out el Motassadeq’s conviction and ordered a retrial starting June 16, saying he was denied a fair trial because the U.S. government refused access to a key witness in its custody.
He still faces charges of membership in a terrorist organization, said Sabine Westphalen, a spokeswoman for the court. But the original arrest warrant’s “urgent suspicion” that he was guilty of being an accessory to murder was downgraded Wednesday to “adequate suspicion,” she said.
Evidence against him
Prosecutors say el Motassadeq, a former electrical engineering student, was privy to the plot to attack the United States and helped cell members conceal their involvement while they lived and studied in Hamburg.
They say he used his power of attorney over al-Shehhi’s bank account to pay rent, tuition and utility bills, allowing the plotters to keep up the appearance of being normal students in Germany. They also noted that he signed Atta’s will.
El Motassadeq said he was only helping out friends.
The federal court that threw out his conviction last month cited the absence of testimony by Ramzi Binalshibh. Bianalshibh, a Yemeni who was captured in Pakistan on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and is now in U.S. custody, is believed to have been the Hamburg cell’s main contact with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.
Binalshibh might be able to testify that el Motassadeq knew nothing of the plot, el Motassadeq’s lawyers say.
The absence of testimony from Binalshibh also helped bring about Mzoudi’s acquittal in February. The case turned in his favor when the Hamburg court heard a statement from an unidentified source that only Binalshibh and the suicide hijackers knew of the Sept. 11 plot — which could also exonerate el Motassadeq. The court said it believed the source was Binalshibh himself.
Federal prosecutors can appeal the decision to free el Motassedeq until his appeal. The Hamburg court said the risk that el Motassadeq could flee was lessened by the conditions of his release, which bar him from obtaining a passport and require him to live in the same apartment as his wife and notify the court of any change of residence.
Evidence in his favor
New evidence that could help el Motassadeq at his retrial emerged at the hearing Friday where lawyers sought his release.
The court was presented with an intercepted 2003 telephone call in which suspected cell member Said Bahaji told his wife that he and others close to the hijackers knew nothing of the planned attacks. Also presented was a 2002 letter in which Bahaji wrote his mother that “Mounir didn’t know anything,” an attorney said.
German authorities say Bahaji, a suspected logistician for the cell, left Germany shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks and remains on the run.
El Motassadeq lived with his wife and children in an apartment near Hamburg’s Technical University, where he studied before his arrest in November 2001. His attorney said he is expected to resume living with his family at a different location that he would not disclose.