Abdelghani Mzoudi was cleared of more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and charges of belonging to a terrorist organization, capping weeks of wrangling as prosecutors introduced new witnesses and testimony to try to salvage their case in only the second trial anywhere of a Sept. 11 suspect.
Presiding Judge Klaus Ruehle said the five-judge court — which freed Mzoudi in December on surprise evidence that suggested he had no knowledge of the plot to attack the United States — had to give him the benefit of the doubt.
"Mr. Mzoudi, you have been acquitted and this may be a relief to you, but it is no reason for joy," said Ruehle, turning to Mzoudi on the defendant's bench. "You were acquitted not because the court is convinced of your innocence, but because the evidence was not enough to convict you."
Prosecutors are planning to appeal the verdict.
They had sought the maximum 15 years in prison. Last February, similar evidence secured the maximum sentence on the same charges against Mzoudi's friend Mounir el Motassadeq — the world's first Sept. 11 conviction.
Prosecutors alleged that Mzoudi provided logistical support to the Hamburg cell under lead hijacker Mohamed Atta, helping with financial transactions and arranging housing for members to evade authorities' attention. Mzoudi spent time at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan in 2000.
Mzoudi's lawyers denied the charges, saying that while their client was friends with many of the Sept. 11 principals, he knew nothing of the plot to attack the United States.
Ruehle acknowledged that some might be "bitter" about the outcome. "We know the horror of international terrorism is far from overcome, but this trial was exclusively about the guilt of the defendant," he said in explaining the verdict.
The acquittal came after the court rejected a last-ditch motion from a lawyer for relatives of American victims of the attacks. Lawyer Andreas Schulz said he had "new information" — apparently incriminating Mzoudi — from the U.S. Department of Justice, but was "not authorized" to tell the court what it was.
His motion urged the court to again ask U.S. authorities for testimony by Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni believed to be the Hamburg cell's key contact with al Qaeda, saying there were signs recently that they might release the information.
U.S. authorities repeatedly refused access to the interrogation transcripts or Binalshibh himself, who has been in secret U.S. custody since his capture in Pakistan on the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Rejecting the motion, Ruehle said he saw no evidence anything had changed.
"U.S. authorities are following this trial closely and would immediately inform those involved if they planned to allow new evidence," Ruehle said. He said he understood wanting to keep evidence secret in the fight against terrorism, but "this loss of evidence cannot go against the defendant," he said.
The court ordered Mzoudi freed Dec. 11 after receiving a statement that said the only people in Hamburg who knew of the plot were hijackers Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah as well as Binalshibh.
The court — which said the statement's unnamed source appeared to be Binalshibh — decided it no longer had sufficient grounds to keep Mzoudi behind bars. It said there was no way to cross-examine the Yemeni so it had to take the statement at face value.
El Motassadeq's lawyers also focused on Binalshibh last week in seeking a retrial, telling a federal appeals court that he was denied a fair trial in Hamburg because Binalshibh did not testify. A ruling is expected in March.
The Mzoudi verdict was originally scheduled Jan. 22, but prosecutors secured a last-minute delay to allow testimony by a man claiming to be a former Iranian intelligence agent who implicated Mzoudi in the attacks.
The witness, identified by the alias Hamid Reza Zakeri, told German investigators he had information that Mzoudi directly took part in the Sept. 11 plot, channeling information to others involved.