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U.S.: Civilian Court Will Try Suspected 'Missing Hijacker'

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The only suspect indicted for the 11 September attacks on America will be tried in a civilian court, not before a military tribunal. Our correspondent Jeffrey Donovan looks at the case against Zacarias Moussaoui and why Washington has decided to send him before a panel of civilian jurors.

Washington, 3 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After all the controversy over President George W. Bush's plan to try suspected terrorists in military tribunals, the only person indicted so far in September's attacks on the U.S. will be tried by a regular civilian court and jury in October.

A U.S. federal judge ruled yesterday that the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, will start on 14 October in a court in northern Virginia just outside Washington and three kilometers from the Pentagon, which was hit by one of four hijacked planes on 11 September.

Moussaui, allegedly the missing "20th hijacker" on 11 September, faces six counts of conspiracy with Osama bin Laden and others to commit mass murder that day. He was arrested on 16 August after his instructors at a Minnesota flight school became suspicious of his educational motives, telling authorities he may be a potential hijacker.

On 2 January, Moussaoui refused to enter a plea. He told the court: "In the name of Allah I do not have anything to plea." The judge asked if that meant he pleaded innocent and Moussaoui's attorney replied, "Yes."

Commentators have wondered why Moussaoui's arrest didn't help authorities to avert the tragedy 25 days later. The American newspaper "The Washington Post" published excerpts of a letter sent by Moussaoui's flight school to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in which school officials suggested, before 11 September, that someone like Moussaoui could fly a plane into a building.

Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI, made this observation in December: "His activities were being investigated before 11 September occurred. Now, could we have done something else perhaps to avoid it in that investigation? Who can say?"

Investigators believe that were it not for his arrest, Moussaoui would have been aboard the flight that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on 11 September. They say he had followed similar patterns of behavior as the 19 hijackers, including attending the same flight school and receiving wired money from the same source in Germany.

Attorney General John Ashcroft (Justice Minister) recently told reporters that he is convinced that the government has a solid case against Moussaoui: "Our indictment offers 30 chilling pages of allegations of Al-Qaeda's campaign of terror. It lists six counts [charges] against Moussaoui, four of which authorize the maximum penalty, upon conviction, of death."

The indictment says that Moussaoui first came to the U.S. in February 2001 with $32,000 in cash after having traveled to Pakistan in late 2000 and trained with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in April 1998. When arrested on immigration violation charges, he possessed numerous flight-training videos for various commercial jet aircraft as well as a computer disk with information on the aerial application of pesticides.

Legal experts say the decision not to send Moussaoui before a military tribunal may be the result of intense domestic and international criticism of those tribunals and the possibility that they could violate civil rights.

But experts believe that Moussaoui is still likely to be convicted by civilian jurors in Virginia, a conservative jurisdiction made up of many former and present government and military personnel.

Sean Murphy, an associate professor of law at George Washington University in the U.S. capital, has represented the United States at the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague.

Murphy made this observation: "Given the reaction that many people in the United States had -- not all, but many had -- and also the reaction that some of our allies had to this idea of military tribunals, they reached a conclusion that they were better off trying him in a regular court."

But Murphy also said that although the evidence against Moussaoui appears to be circumstantial, there have been convictions in recent years based on similar evidence. He pointed to a string of foreign suspects that were sentenced to life in the U.S. for their role in the bombings of two American embassies in East Africa: "It seems to me likely that they would be able to obtain a conviction from what we know right now, and I don't think it's likely they would have brought the case in a regular court had they not felt confident they could obtain a conviction."

Murphy believes, however, that prosecutors face a tough dilemma in whether to seek the death penalty, a decision they must make by 29 March. Murphy said the use of the death penalty could backfire on Washington: "There are other individuals who have been apprehended in Europe who we would probably like to see extradited to the United States but probably couldn't get their extradition unless we assured the European governments that they would not be sentenced to death."

U.S. media also reported on 2 January that authorities may seek to try Richard Reid, the British citizen suspected of trying to blow up an American Airlines jet with a shoe-bomb in late December, in the same Virginia court hearing Moussaoui's case.

But it appears premature to conclude that the U.S. will scrap altogether using the military tribunals against terror suspects.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told a briefing on 2 January that although several foreign Al-Qaeda suspects captured in Afghanistan were due to be held at a U.S. military base in Cuba, a decision on whether to try them in military tribunals is still under consideration.

Critics say the tribunals would violate basic civil rights and not respect proper legal procedures. Advocates say such tribunals have a precedent in U.S. law during times of war and are necessary to protect intelligence sources and jury members.