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Worlds only 911 convinct wins retrial { March 4 2004 }

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World's Only 9/11 Convict Wins Retrial
Thursday March 4, 2004 7:31 PM


Associated Press Writer

KARLSRUHE, Germany (AP) - The only person in the world convicted in the Sept. 11 attacks won a retrial Thursday after an appeals court faulted Washington for refusing to allow testimony from a key al-Qaida captive.

The Federal Criminal Court overturned the conviction of Mounir el Motassadeq, a Moroccan, leaving German prosecutors with little to show for their efforts to pursue suspects who may have belonged to the Hamburg cell that included three of the suicide hijackers.

A month ago, el Motassadeq's friend Abdelghani Mzoudi was acquitted of identical charges of giving logistical aid to the cell. Relatives of Sept. 11 victims again expressed frustration and Germany's top security official, Interior Minister Otto Schily, called Thursday's ruling ``regrettable.''

El Motassadeq, 29, remains in the Hamburg prison where he was serving the maximum 15-year sentence for more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and membership in a terrorist organization. Presiding Judge Klaus Tolksdorf said he is still ``under a high degree of suspicion.''

That comment resembled remarks by the presiding judge in Mzoudi's case, who had said the acquittal was ``no reason for joy'' and came not because the court believed Mzoudi was innocent but because there wasn't enough evidence against him.

Lawyers said they would seek el Motassadeq's release and planned to introduce new evidence in the retrial that was critical to Mzoudi's acquittal. El Motassadeq has denied involvement in the Sept. 11 plot.

``I believe he is guilty,'' said Stephen Push, founder of the New York-based Families of Sept. 11 group, whose wife was aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. ``It's unfortunate that the conviction wasn't upheld.''

In Washington, the Justice Department said the court ruling was a German affair.

``We will continue to cooperate to the fullest extent possible with Germany in the fight against our common foe, the terrorists,'' spokesman Mark Corallo said.

Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni believed to have been the Hamburg cell's contact with al-Qaida, was the key to Thursday's ruling.

He has been in secret U.S. custody since his Sept. 11, 2002, capture in Pakistan; the U.S. Justice Department turned down court requests in both Hamburg trials to let him testify, saying he is ``not available.''

El Motassadeq acknowledges knowing the plotters, but maintains Binalshibh would be able to confirm he wasn't involved in the plot to attack the United States.

The German government refused to turn over transcripts of Binalshibh's interrogation, saying the United States provided them for intelligence purposes only.

On Thursday, the five-judge appeals panel said the lower court failed to weigh properly how any testimony by Binalshibh might have stacked up against the largely circumstantial evidence that secured the guilty verdict.

``Binalshibh was centrally involved in what happened,'' Tolksdorf said. ``He could have testified directly about the preparations.''

``Authorities' interest in maintaining secrecy must not be allowed to disadvantage a defendant,'' Tolksdorf said.

Germany's chief federal prosecutor urged U.S. authorities to reconsider their exclusion of the Binalshibh transcripts.

``In both trials we tried through different channels to get hold of this information,'' Kay Nehm told ZDF television. ``We hope that the reactions in Germany and the United States will lead to a change of view.''

The U.S. trial of alleged Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui also has been denied access to Binalshibh and other al-Qaida prisoners. Prosecutors there argued that national security would be harmed if details were revealed about the captives' interrogations.

``One has to ask whether this is really a wise policy if one wants judicial authorities to succeed,'' said Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew's University, Scotland.

The U.S. position ``should be reconsidered,'' he said. But ``there's no evidence at the moment that they have changed their view.''

El Motassadeq was found guilty in February 2003 of aiding the Hamburg cell that included hijackers Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah as well as Binalshibh.

Evidence cited by the Hamburg court included his payments of tuition and rent for other cell members, helping them maintain appearances of a normal student life while plotting the attacks.

El Motassadeq's lawyers say they will seek to reintroduce evidence at the retrial that prompted Mzoudi's release. That includes a statement from an unidentified informant saying the only people in Hamburg who knew of the Sept. 11 plot were the three hijackers and Binalshibh.

The Hamburg court, which later acquitted Mzoudi, identified the source as Binalshibh and said that, while it doubted the statement's veracity, they were unable to check its credibility and had to take it at face value.

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