A free man
A terrorist walks. From AP, and DC Watson:
HAMBURG, Germany – The only Sept. 11 suspect convicted was freed by a court Wednesday, pending the outcome of his retrial on charges of aiding the Hamburg al-Qaida cell that included three of the suicide pilots.
Mounir el Motassadeq, 30, smiled broadly as he left the Hamburg prison where he had been held since November 2001. He walked past reporters without comment before his friends and lawyer whisked him away in a car to an unknown location.
Lawyer 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,” the lawyer told reporters. “Now he’s going home to his family.”
Explaining the decision, judges said their suspicion that Mounir 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, 30, 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 denies any knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot.
He has 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. He was expected to be released later Wednesday.
The decision was a fresh 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.
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, court spokeswoman Sabine Westphalen said. 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.
Prosecutors say el Motassadeq 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 the former electrical engineering student took care of financial matters for alleged cell member Zakariya Essabar. He also is accused of helping cell members elude the watch of authorities by finding them a room in student housing and allowing al-Shehhi and Atta to use his Hamburg mailing address while they took flying lessons in the United States.
The federal court that threw out his conviction last month cited the absence of testimony by Ramzi Binalshibh. The Yemeni, captured in Pakistan on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and 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, the Moroccan’s lawyers say.
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.
New evidence that could help el Motassadeq at his retrial emerged at a Hamburg court 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 from Bahaji to his mother in which he wrote “Mounir didn’t know anything,” an attorney said.
German authorities say Bahaji, a suspected cell logistician, 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 November 2001 arrest. His attorney said he is expected to resume living with his family at a different location that he would not disclose.
The absence of testimony from Binalshibh also helped bring about Mzoudi’s acquittal in February.
Mzoudi’s 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.