The trial of a Moroccan man accused of aiding the Sept. 11 hijackers took a curious twist Friday when a bearded and bespectacled man, purporting to be a former Iranian spy, testified as part of a gamble by German prosecutors seeking to avert an embarrassing defeat.
The credibility of the witness, who goes by the alias Hamid Reza Zakeri, is suspect. German prosecutors introduced him in a last-minute attempt to keep their case against Abdelghani Mzoudi from crumbling. The government’s charges against Mzoudi have been weakened in recent weeks, and indications from the court have suggested he could be acquitted.
An acquittal would be a severe blow to Germany’s intelligence investigations and would raise questions about the conviction of a second Moroccan whose case is before a federal appellate court. Legal analysts say Mzoudi and the other man, Mounir Motassadeq, the only two people to stand trial in the deaths of more than 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, may be freed.
Zakeri alleges that the Sept. 11 attacks were part of a wider conspiracy involving Al Qaeda and the Iranian government. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, facing long-standing accusations by Washington that his country supports terrorism, said recently that Zakeri was a defector with a dubious story.
Germany’s foreign and domestic intelligence agencies told the court that Zakeri might have been an Iranian spy but that his claims were “highly speculative.” The agencies said he had provided false information in the past and once asserted that Israel’s secret service was behind the Sept. 11 hijackings.
Zakeri alleges that Mzoudi, who is charged as an accessory to murder, was an important Al Qaeda operative. Much of the testimony throughout the five-month trial suggested that Mzoudi was more of a peripheral figure with little or no knowledge of the plot. He is believed to have helped the Hamburg-based cell that carried out the plot with money and lodging.
Zakeri accused Mzoudi, who did train in Osama bin Laden’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan, of being “a specialist for coded messages.” He said Mzoudi also spent time in an Iran-based terrorist camp in 1997. Prosecutors conceded that was improbable because Mzoudi was in Germany most of that year.
Zakeri also told of CIA ploys and letter bombs sent from Zurich and the German city of Dusseldorf.
“It’s difficult to follow you, Mr. Zakeri,” said Judge Klaus Ruehle, who said he would render a verdict in the case Thursday.
The confusion about Zakeri grew after German intelligence suggested that he might be using the name of a high-ranking Iranian spy who defected to India in 2003.
The crux of his testimony contradicts a fax sent to the court last month by German federal police.
That document, according to the court, states that Ramzi Binalshibh, an alleged coordinator of the Hamburg group who is in U.S. custody, told American interrogators that Mzoudi was not part of the cell.
After Zakeri’s more than three hours on the stand, prosecutors characterized their witness’ testimony as “unfortunate.”
Prosecutor Walter Hemberger acknowledged that his case was under pressure and that calling Zakeri as a witness was “a damned dodgy situation.” He denied, however, that Zakeri was called in a bid to postpone the verdict.
If convicted, Mzoudi could face 15 years in prison. But lawyers representing the families of the Sept. 11 victims said they expected him to be acquitted.
“It’s over,” said Andres Schulz, one of the lawyers.
The Mzoudi verdict will affect the case against Motassadeq, who was convicted as an accessory to 3,066 murders and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Germany’s federal appeals court this week criticized prosecutors for introducing certain evidence and withholding other information.
One judge called the statement by Binalshibh, which was not introduced at Motassadeq’s trial, a “black hole” because it also raised doubts about Motassadeq’s involvement with the Hamburg cell.
The appeals court is expected to announce March 4 whether Motassadeq will be granted a new trial.
Special correspondent Laabs reported from Hamburg and staff writer Fleishman from Berlin.