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Opinion: Blockading Terror Trials

The only person convicted of involvement in the Sept. 11 terror attacks was released on Wednesday ahead of a retrial. The German judiciary showed it takes its cues from the rule of law, not from political pressure.

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It is indeed remarkable how within a year the tide turned in the first worldwide terror trial since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. What went wrong? How can it be that one court imposes the highest penalty for accessory to murder in more than 3,000 counts, while another brings about Moroccan Mounir el Motassadeq's conditional release?

It was to be expected -- ever since the second Hamburg terror trial, against Abdelghani Mzoudi, ended with an acquittal. And it had become a certainty, at the latest by the time Germany's Federal Criminal Court in sharp words overturned the conviction in the Motassadeq case last month.

Evidence was kept secret all too long. Or is it not more accurate to say suppressed? Confessions from other suspected top terrorists fill the file cabinets of intelligence agencies. But for the judges -- who after all decide whether a defendant is guilty or innocent -- they were inaccessible.

Now retaliation has come for this absolutely unacceptable manner of dealing with the judiciary. The federal prosecutors who are responsible for terrorism trials have rarely been thus unmasked. The summarily constructed charges that left so many holes in the allegedly watertight chain of evidence have now collapsed like a house of cards.

Setback for U.S.- German relations

And U.S.-German relations will experience a further setback. For U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and his people will again have nothing better to do than charge the German judiciary of being "wimpy." On top of it all, during a time in which al Qaeda practically declared war on Spain and announced further terror attacks.

But the snide remarks should bounce off the cool headed-types who have the courage to look closely -- to deliberate precisely whether it's in accordance with the rule of law to do the utmost to sentence these defendants -- as has been the case -- no matter what the cost.

Did the judges who sentenced Motassadeq to 15 years in jail loose their nerve? Was the political pressure so high that they couldn't do otherwise? No, since firstly, at the time there was no exonerating testimony from Ramzi Binalshibh, considered a top terrorist in the al Qaeda network and currently in U.S. custody.

And secondly, the judges said that their sentence could be overturned if Binalshibh one day exonerated the defendant, testimony that was at the time inaccessible due to a U.S. blockade. But now it is available, and new incriminating evidence has not been unearthed so far. Al Qaeda's terror attacks are inhuman, brutal crimes that must be atoned for. Those responsible for them must be called to account, but not anyone who the authorities get their hands on, at any price. A well-functioning, vigilant judiciary merely proves that, at any rate, the German legal system works. The United States should finally abandon its blockade policy for terror trials and make sure that everything, absolutely everything, that can contribute to clarification comes to light and to the German judiciary.

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