HAMBURG, Germany - A German court acquitted a Moroccan man accused of aiding the Sept. 11 hijackers, saying yesterday that while it was not convinced of his innocence, the evidence was not strong enough for a conviction.
The panel of judges acquitted the man, Abdelghani Mzoudi, 31, after the court had been denied access to what it thought could be key information from a witness held by American authorities.
"You are freed," said the presiding judge, Klaus Ruhle, speaking to Mzoudi, who was charged with acting as an accessory in the deaths of more than 3,000 people in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. "Not because the court is convinced you are innocent."
"The defendant must not bear the burden of missing evidence," the judge said.
Ruhle was apparently referring to the court's lack of access to evidence from an interrogation of a jailed al-Qaida figure, Ramzi Binalshibh.
New evidence submitted late last year as a letter to the court from Germany's national police, the Federal Criminal Agency, included the testimony of an unnamed witness who said only four members of the Hamburg cell - the three suicide pilots and an associate, Binalshibh, knew about the attacks beforehand.
"These four people at no time spoke with others about the actual operations or creation of a terrorist cell for inciting a holy war," according to the witness' statement.
Ruhle told the court in December that by process of elimination, the witness must have been Binalshibh, a close associate of the hijackers who was arrested in Pakistan exactly a year after the attacks and remains in American custody.
When the U.S. authorities gave information from the interrogations of a number of suspects to German intelligence, it was on strict conditions that forbade revealing details in court. Washington refused requests by the court that Binalshibh be made available for cross-examination.
The United States' refusal to allow testimony from Binalshibh prompted the Hamburg court to order the release of Mzoudi on Dec. 11, 2003.
In Mzoudi's acquittal, the court acted on the premise that it was obliged to consider all available evidence, and when it is not available, to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt.
After yesterday's decision, Mzoudi appeared at a news conference with his lawyers, who expressed jubilation. But he declined to answer questions.
Prosecutors in Mzoudi's case said they will appeal the decision. Justice authorities in Hamburg have said previously that they would try to expel him. His lawyers have said that he would apply for political asylum.