Mounir el Motassadeq, accused of giving logistical aid to the Hamburg al Qaeda cell that included hijackers Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah, is being retried after his conviction was thrown out in March.
The appeals court ruled he was unfairly denied testimony from U.S.-held suspects including Ramzi Binalshibh, believed to be the Hamburg cell's contact with al Qaeda. The new trial opened Tuesday with a U.S. pledge to provide evidence, but no direct testimony.
Presiding Judge Ernst-Rainer Schudt said the Hamburg state court had received a fax from the Justice Department dated Aug. 9, containing summaries of the interrogations of two detainees.
Binalshibh said the only members of the Hamburg cell were himself, Atta, al-Shehhi and Jarrah, according to the letter.
He said that "the activities of the Hamburg group were not known to el Motassadeq," it added. The group was "well known by a number of Arab students," but "Binalshibh said that the people in question had no knowledge and were not participants in any facet of the operative plans of Sept. 11."
The impact of Binalshibh's statement wasn't immediately clear. But Judge Schudt said afterward that "we must consider what this means for the trial, and what it means for the volume of evidence we will listen to."
The United States also provided summaries of the interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, believed to have masterminded the Sept. 11 plot. It mentioned that the German court requested statements from Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian suspected to have been an al Qaeda contact in Germany, but it provided none.
In its letter to the court, the U.S. Justice Department cited "inconsistencies by at least one of the individuals" and said that "there may be reason to question the assertions regarding Mounir el Motassadeq." It said it was considering whether further information could be provided.
German prosecutors have suggested Binalshibh would not be a credible witness because he might lie to protect el Motassadeq.
"There are doubts whether this is really exonerating, but we must see," chief prosecutor Walter Hemberger told reporters.
U.S. authorities have said they cannot provide direct contact with suspects including Binalshibh and Mohammed for national security reasons. In el Motassadeq's first trial, the U.S. government refused to allow even transcripts of interrogations to be admitted as evidence.
El Motassadeq's lawyers are calling for the court to throw out the case, suggesting that any information gathered by U.S. intelligence services might have been obtained through use of torture.
El Motassadeq was freed from prison in April. He is being retried on the same charges — membership in a terrorist organization and more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder — for which he was originally sentenced to the maximum 15 years in 2003.
Lack of testimony from Binalshibh or Mohammed also played a large role in the February acquittal in the same court of el Motassadeq's friend and fellow Moroccan Abdelghani Mzoudi, who faced identical charges.
El Motassadeq is accused of helping pay tuition and other bills for members of the Hamburg al Qaeda cell to allow them to live as students as they plotted the attacks.
He admitted training in bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan, and witnesses at his first trial testified that he was as radical as the rest of the group, often talking of jihad — holy war — and his hatred of Israel and the United States.
He signed Atta's will and had power of attorney over al-Shehhi's bank account.
In the retrial, el Motassadeq is staying with his original defense: that he was friends with most of the principals of the Hamburg al Qaeda cell, but was not privy to their deadly plans.