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German 9/11 trial underscores need for better global cooperation

The supreme court rules Thursday on a case in which the US denied access to a key witness.

By Mary WiltenburgCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 16, 2006


If convicted terrorist-cell member Mounir el-Motassadeq walks free Thursday from a German courtroom, he may have US security policy to thank.

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Direct and respectful before his judges, Mr. Motassadeq is less well-known than recently sentenced 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, whose courtroom theatrics drew broad attention to his trial in the US.

But the dramatic legal odyssey of the first man ever tried in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks has been the focus of bitter recrimination between German and US officials, who have denied the case's lawyers access to statements from a key witness.

As both countries attempt to strike the right balance between national security and the rule of law, observers say the case is a prime example of why it will take better global cooperation to succeed in the war on terror.

"The information-sharing problem is the key to fighting international terrorism," says law professor Joachim Wolf of Ruhr University in Bochum. "This [case] has been a disaster. But even a disaster can be a first step for developing something."

Since Motassadeq's first trial opened in 2002, the Moroccan citizen's case has taken numerous turns: In 2003, he was found guilty of abetting the murder of 3,066 people. On appeal, he was declared wrongly convicted. In a second trial, he was sentenced to seven years for membership in a terrorist organization. This February, he was released on bond pending resolution of appeals. Thursday, the German Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling that might clear Motassadeq of all charges, return him to prison, or grant him a third trial that could reinstate the accessory-to-murder charges.

The key question before the court is whether Motassadeq's second trial erred in sentencing him so lightly, given his close association with three of the 9/11 hijackers: Mohamed Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah.

A one-time roommate and a member of their Islamic study group in Hamburg, Motassadeq handled business affairs for the men while they trained at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, then went there himself to train. When his friends left Germany to enroll in US flight schools, Motassadeq offered to look out for Mr. Jarrah's girlfriend. He paid bills from Mr. al Shehhi's bank account. He signed Mr. Atta's will.

All along, Motassadeq has maintained that one man could prove his innocence: Ramzi Binalshibh. Referred to by the 9/11 Commission Report as the fourth member of the Hamburg cell and a 9/11 plotter, Mr. Binalshibh was held in an undisclosed CIA facility from his 2002 capture until September, when he was one of 14 "high value" suspects moved to the US military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Since 2002, German courts have repeatedly requested access to Binalshibh. Despite numerous appeals, including two personal visits to the US by the German prosecutor, American intelligence services have refused, saying such a move would jeopardize national security.

Consequently, defense lawyer Udo Jacob argues, evidence that might have showed Motassadeq's innocence "was not considered, and I think this is a big fault in the sentence."