The retrial of Mounir el Motassadeq takes an unexpected turn as the US releases testimony from an al Qaeda captive who says the suspect knew nothing of the attack plans. But prosecutors have their doubts.
Documents from the US offer exculpatory evidence for suspect
The Hamburg higher adminstrative court hearing the retrial of the first man convicted in Germany of ties to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks received a bombshell fax from the US Justice Department on Wednesday.
The fax contained summaries of three detainees' interrogations, including the testimony of Ramzi Binalshibh, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. Many observers have long believed that testimony from Binalshibh could provide the key to a final verdict in the case.
Only this time, it could help suspect Motassadeq rather than the prosecution.
According to the summary read out in the court room by presiding judge Ernst-Rainer Schudt, Motassadeq -- who is on trial for aiding the Hamburg-based Sept. 11 suicide pilots Mohammed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah -- had no idea of the terrorist plot.
A blow for prosecutors?
"We have to think about the consequences of this," Schudt said.
After the surprising development on Wednesday, Motassadeq's defense attorneys -- who only one day earlier claimed any testimony from Binalshibh or Mohammed would be unreliable because they had likely been tortured or forced into giving testimony by US intelligence agents --seemed pleased with the apparently exculpatory evidence.
"I think it's going to result in an acquittal," said attorney Josef Grässle-Münscher.
That, however, will depend on how much credence the judges put in the evidence supplied by the Bush administration. As some observers have pointed out, why would one al Qaeda member want to provide information that could help convict another member of the loose-knit terror cell whose members are known for their deep-rooted hatred of the West and fierce loyalty to Osama bin Laden.
Walter Hemberger, a leading deputy from the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office said he had "considerable doubts" about the Binalshibh statements delivered by Washington. He said Binalshibh, who is being held in a clandestine location by US authorities, had also stated that terror suspect Zakariya Essabar also had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks. "But according to our information, (his participation) was clear cut." Investigators believe Essabar was supposed to be one of the hijackers before he was denied a visa.
Binalshibh: He knew nothing
Wednesday's fax from Washington likely came as a disappointment for German prosecutors, who considered Binalshibh's testimony to be of central importance to prove the case against Motassadeq. Instead of containing the smoking gun prosecutors had hoped for, it had messages that seemed to support Motassadeq's version of the story.
Binalshibh said that "the only members of the Hamburg cell were himself, Atta, al-Shehhi and Jarrah," the letter read. It added that Binalshibh had said "the activities of the Hamburg cell were not known to Motassadeq."
In the testimony summary, Binalshibh conceded that 30-year-old Motassadeq, a Moroccan immigrant who studied electrical engineering in Hamburg, had been a close friend of the Hamburg cell. He had met with the men regularly for prayer at the local mosque or "engaged anti-American discussions" at Atta's apartment. He also said Motassadeq had handled some money matters for the group. However, "Motassadeq never knew that the money was intended for," the Justice Department summary quoted Binalshibh as saying.
According to the summary, Binalshibh is also said to have told US investigators that the Hamburg group was "well known by a number of Arab students." But "Binalshibh said that the people in question had no knowledge and were not participants in any facet of the operative plans of Sept. 11," the letter read.
A second terrorist suspect quoted by the Justice Department was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is also being held by the US in an undisclosed location. The papers quoted Mohammed stating that he had first met Motassadeq in the Pakistani port city of Karachi and that he had aided the Hamburg student in his travel preparations for a visit to an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. But Mohammed said he had never discussed the planned attack with Motassadeq.
Trial two for Motassadeq
Last year, Motassadeq became the first person in the world with an alleged connection to the Sept. 11 attacks to be convicted. He was sentenced to 15 years in jail.
But in March this year a higher court ruled the verdict was unsatisfactory as judges had not had access to testimony from Ramzi Binalshibh, a key member of the al Qaeda Hamburg cell who was captured in Pakistan in 2002. It ordered a new trial for Motassadeq, which commenced on Tuesday.
This story was originally published on Aug. 11