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Germany

Mzoudi Decision Generates Criticism and Skepticism

The release of suspected terrorist Abelghani Mzoudi has caused concern and disappointment on both sides of the Atlantic as the 9/11 prosecution faces its first major setback.

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Abdelghani Mzoudi was just one of those stunned by the Hamburg court's decision to release him.

The Hamburg court’s decision to release suspected 9/11 accomplice Abelghani Mzoudi, the man accused of involvement in the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and only the second person in the world to stand trial over the attacks, has drawn criticism and skepticism from authority figures involved in the investigation and prosecution of suspected terrorists. Mzoudi,

After Mzoudi was effectively cleared of complicity in the murder of over 3000 people, Chief German federal prosecutor Kay Nehm came out with comments questioning the decision of the court to base the release on evidence submitted by an unknown witness.

Court should have taken more time, says Nehm

"I don't think the court was well advised," Nehm told German state broadcaster ARD television. "I think the judge would have been well-advised if he had slept on the decision for a night. (The court) should have reflected on what was really in this statement and then carefully checked how all that fitted in with the evidence in the proceedings so far."

"The (Mzoudi) release was quite surprising for everyone involved in the process." Nehm said adding that a similar situation should not happen under the U.S. court system in which al Qaeda suspect Zacarias Moussaoui is facing trial for his alleged role in the 9/11 attacks.

He refused to comment on whether the decision of the Hamburg court would have any immediate effect on the sentence of Mounir al Mossadeq who is currently incarcerated in Germany on identical charges to Mzoudi after being sentenced to 15 years in jail last February for plotting with the 11 September hijackers.

Al Mossadeq’s representatives immediately called for his release as the news concerning Mzoudi’s trial broke. “We will make an immediate move to get him out - this is clear," Josef Graessle-Muenscher told Reuters on Thursday.

Ashcroft expresses concern

The decision was expected to infuriate the U.S. which previously praised the Germans for their work in the investigation into the Hamburg cell and their wider work in the "war on terror." However, when U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was asked at a news conference about the Hamburg decision, he resisted the urge to condemn, choosing only to express his concern about the decision and to insist it would not jeopardize the prosecution of Moussaoui.

"I am disappointed this case in Germany has taken the turn it has taken," Ashcroft said. "Our system is literally constructed so that when we encounter a circumstance like they encountered in Germany, there are ways in which that is ...resolved at a higher level."

"We believe our system can work and work effectively, and we're proceeding forward on that basis," he added.

Suspect freed on anonymous testimony

Mzoudi was released from his pre-trial custody on Thursday to the astonishment of all those gathered in the Hamburg courtroom. Judge Klaus Ruehle, in possession of new evidence provided by the Federal Criminal Investigation Bureau (BKA), said the testimony of one particular witness in the case "clearly exonerates" Mzoudi from the accusations that he was a knowing collaborator of the Hamburg al Qaeda cell which carried out the attacks in the United States in 2001.

The source of the new evidence continues to stir debate because the only name attached to it is the BKA, with no witness explicitly identified in the document. Speculation surrounds the identity of the source, although one of al Qaeda's mastermind planners, Ramzi Binalshibh, has been implied by the Hamburg state prosecutor and an number of media outlets.

Evidence suggests a four-man cell

The new evidence suggests that there were only four people in the Hamburg cell, three of whom were suicide pilots in the attacks on New York and Washington -- Mohammed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah -- and the fourth being Binalshibh himself, currently in U.S. detention charged with being the coordinator of the attack.

While apparently exonerating Mzoudi from the alleged four-man cell, the information strongly hints at Binalshibh as the source.

The release decision, based on evidence supposedly from Binalshibh, is all the more surprising due to recent attempts by the defense teams of both Mzoudi and Mounir al-Motassadeq, the only other suspect being held on charges surrounding the attacks, to hear evidence from Binalshibh.

Only last month, the Hamburg court rejected an application from Mzoudi’s defense attorneys to present statements of imprisoned al Qaeda members.

Authority report presents evidence to court

Half an hour before the hearing was to convene on Thursday morning; the fax machine at the Hamburg court burst into life and effectively overruled that decision. At 8.28 a.m., a so-called "authority report" from the BKA began to churn from the machine containing testimony believed to be from Binalshibh.

Barely three and a half hours later, Judge Ruehle told the court that the arrest warrant for Mzoudi had been lifted as there was no further reason for his detention under the charge of being an accessory in the attacks.

"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.

Caution over Binalshibh evidence

State prosecutor Walter Hemberger, who immediately opposed the request for Mzoudi's release, reacted quickly to the speculation that the evidence that had led to the suspect’s release had come from Binalshibh. Hemberger said that Binalshibh's word could not be trusted, and was likely to be motivated by a desire to protect others and cover up details of the plot.

However, Mzoudi's lawyers have argued that, even without the new evidence, it would have been proved that their client simply helped fellow Muslims and had no idea about a hijack plot. "We had not counted on it happening this way, however, we are happy about the right decision," said defense lawyer Gül Pinar in a statement after the court’s announcement.

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