HAMBURG -- After three years of failing to hold anyone accountable for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Germany is preparing to expel accused members of the Hamburg-based cell that led the hijackings and send them to countries with more aggressive records of prosecuting terrorism.
Although two criminal trials are still pending, German officials, legal experts and lawyers involved in the cases said the massive investigation into the al Qaeda cell has been stymied by this country's lax anti-terrorism laws, unfavorable judicial rulings and a lack of evidence, making it increasingly doubtful that anyone here will be convicted.
A cameraman films a Hamburg courtroom, protected by bulletproof glass and netting, before a session in the first trial of Mounir Motassadeq in 2002.
(Pool Photo/Heribert Proepper Via AP)
The state of affairs is apparent at the judicial complex in Hamburg, where one of the defendants, Mounir Motassadeq, is being tried on more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and membership in a terrorist organization. Despite the gravity of the charges, he is a free man, walking alone from his home to the century-old courthouse each morning, unguarded.
Motassadeq was convicted of the charges last year, making him the only person anywhere found guilty of playing a role in the Sept. 11 plot to attack targets in the United States. But he was freed in April, after an appellate court rejected the verdict as based on flimsy evidence and other legal deficiencies.
A retrial began in August and is scheduled to last at least two more months, but the basis of the prosecution's case has been undermined by its own witnesses, including one whom the presiding judge accused of "fantasizing" during his testimony. Attorneys for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks have filed a civil suit against Motassadeq, in part to prevent him from collecting as much as $50,000 in compensation from the German government for wrongful prosecution if he is acquitted.
In another sign of the widespread doubts surrounding the investigation, officials in Hamburg filed papers in July to deport Motassadeq and a second suspect, Abdelghani Mzoudi, to their native Morocco, a preemptive measure in case they are found not guilty or receive a light sentence.
Bernd-Ruedeger Sonnen, a law professor at the University of Hamburg, said German officials want to minimize any political embarrassment that would result from a failure by kicking the defendants out of the country as quickly as possible.
"It would be an affront to the U.S. population to acquit them," Sonnen said. "The German public is also asking: Why are the judges making it so difficult? Why can't we convict them? That's the huge problem that Germany now faces, and that's why Germany would be very happy to deport them to Morocco to rid themselves of this problem."
Meanwhile, German authorities are also trying to extradite to Spain another alleged member of the Hamburg cell, Mamoun Darkazanli, a Syrian-born German national. He has been indicted in Spain for allegedly playing a supporting role in the Sept. 11 attacks. He also has been listed as a terrorism financier by U.S. Treasury Department officials, who have accused him of being a longtime financial backer of al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
Germany has been investigating Darkazanli for years but has not charged him with any crimes. He remained free in Hamburg until last month, when he was arrested on a Spanish warrant seeking his extradition.
When it comes to dealing with Islamic radicals, Germany has some of the most tolerant laws in Europe. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, it was legal in Germany to belong to a foreign terrorist organization such as al Qaeda as long as it was not active inside the country.
Germany has also been slow to prosecute suspected terrorists wanted by other nations.
Last year, Italy filed charges against two other Islamic radicals from Hamburg who were acquaintances of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Italian prosecutors accused the two men, Abderrazak Mahdjoub and Mohamed Daki, of recruiting religious extremists from Europe to launch suicide attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. German investigators said they had the men under surveillance in Hamburg but did not have enough evidence to arrest them.
German legislators have tried to stiffen their anti-terrorism laws in recent years and have made it easier to deport immigrants for belonging to Islamic radical groups. But police and prosecutors complain that they are still hampered by a legal code that was drafted after World War II in hopes of reining in Nazi-style abuses and places a greater burden of proof on German investigators than their counterparts in other European countries.