HAMBURG -- A court yesterday acquitted a Moroccan accused of helping the Sept. 11 hijackers while they lived and studied in Hamburg, citing a lack of evidence that he was involved in the Al Qaeda cell's plans to attack the United States.
Abdelghani Mzoudi, a longtime acquaintance of lead hijacker Mohamed Atta who even signed his will, smiled silently as he left the state court a free man after only the second trial anywhere of a suspect in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The verdict angered victims' relatives and prompted Germany's chief federal prosecutor to criticize Washington for refusing to allow testimony from a US captive, Ramzi Binalshibh, thought to have been the hijackers' main contact with Al Qaeda.
The presiding judge told Mzoudi that his acquittal was "no reason for joy."
"You were acquitted not because the court is convinced of your innocence, but because the evidence was not enough to convict you," Judge Klaus Ruehle said in explaining the verdict. "In this case, we have to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt."
The US Justice Department issued a statement saying it regretted the acquittal and defending its level of cooperation.
"The United States has cooperated to the greatest extent possible in this and other terrorism prosecutions in Germany, consistent with security interests critical to the United States and the international community as a whole," spokesman Mark Corallo said. "Our cooperation with Germany will continue."
Zacarias Moussaoui, an alleged Sept. 11 conspirator on trial in the United States, also has been denied access to Binalshibh and other Al Qaeda prisoners. US prosecutors have said national security would be gravely harmed if details were disclosed about the sensitive interrogations of the captives.
Mzoudi faced more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and charges of belonging to a terrorist group allegedly led by Atta. Prosecutors said they would appeal the ruling of the five-judge court, and chief prosecutor Kay Nehm said he was hopeful of winning a retrial. Prosecutors said Mzoudi provided logistical support to the Hamburg cell of Al Qaeda, helping with financial transactions -- for instance, paying student fees -- and arranging housing for members. Mzoudi received training at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan in 2000.
But the case took a dramatic turn Dec. 11 when the court heard evidence that suggested Mzoudi had no knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot, prompting the court to order him freed from custody.
Prosecutors scrambled to salvage their case, producing new witnesses and evidence. In a last-ditch move, a lawyer for relatives of the victims sought to delay the verdict as yesterday's session began, asking the court to again seek evidence from Binalshibh. Ruehle rejected the request, then pronounced the verdict.
"We have no evidence that Mzoudi was aware of the planning," and his alleged help to the plotters consisted of "everyday actions that he could have carried out without knowing anything about the attacks," Ruehle told the court.
Mzoudi left the court building alone. He declined to speak to reporters and his lawyers would not say where he was going, but he was expected to remain under surveillance by German authorities. Nehm, at his agency's headquarters in Karlsruhe, said the US stance hampered the trial: "They must have their reasons, which they did not communicate to us. . . . I find this conduct by the United States incomprehensible."A year ago, similar evidence in the same court secured the maximum 15-year prison sentence on the same charges against Mzoudi's friend Mounir el Motassadeq -- the world's first conviction in the Sept. 11 attacks. Motassadeq's lawyers have seized on Binalshibh's absence and are demanding a retrial.