Moussaoui withdraws guilty plea, headed for September trial


Friday, July 26th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) _ Zacarias Moussaoui's sudden decision to withdraw his guilty plea was just another in a string of courtroom surprises from the only man charged as a conspirator in the Sept. 11 attacks.

But as the government's case against the self-proclaimed follower of Osama bin Laden moves toward a September trial, his court-appointed lawyers say there is a constant among all the twists and turns.

``I think he underscored today that he denies 9-11,'' public defender Frank Dunham Jr. said Thursday after Moussaoui initially tried to plead guilty but reversed course when told his plea would be interpreted as an admission that he had a role in the attacks.

``I did not know about Sept. 11,'' Moussaoui declared.

Another standby counsel, Edward MacMahon, said that statement ``is consistent with the way he's behaved in court every time.''

Moussaoui is representing himself and has refused to talk to the standby lawyers U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema appointed to help him. He did meet before Thursday's hearing with Sadiq Reza, a New York law professor and attorney with the American-Muslim Council, in a session apparently arranged by Brinkema.

Last month, Moussaoui denied any role in the attacks. Then, last week, he said he wanted to plead guilty and proclaimed himself a follower of bin Laden. After Brinkema told him to think about it for a week, Moussaoui initially tried Thursday to plead guilty to four of the six charges against him, including conspiring with the hijackers to commit acts of terrorism and conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy. The four charges all carry a possible death sentence.

But when Brinkema explained that a guilty plea would be an admission of a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, Moussaoui balked. He asked for a recess, and when the hearing resumed he withdrew his plea.

``You want to link me to certain facts that will guarantee my death,'' Moussaoui told Brinkema. ``Dictated by my obligation to my creator Allah to save my life and to defend my life, I withdraw my plea.''

Throughout the hearing, Moussaoui insisted he wanted to tell an American jury why he came to the United States and what he planned to do and let them decide whether he deserves a death sentence.

``That's why I want to talk to these 12 people, these 12 American, who are my enemy, but sometime you can find honest enemy,'' Moussaoui said.

After withdrawing his plea, Moussaoui said he intends to use his standby lawyers to help him track down witnesses, including a British agent whom he said had ``taken a very important part in this conspiracy.''

Moussaoui claims U.S. authorities know he is innocent of the hijackings because they had him and the 19 hijackers under surveillance for months and allowed the attacks to occur so the United States could attack the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Moussaoui on Thursday agreed to meet again with Reza, and said he intends to identify another Sept. 11 conspirator ``in the custody of the United States government.''

Brinkema had initially said she was willing to accept a guilty plea from Moussaoui, but she too changed her mind as it became clear that Moussaoui disputed the heart of the government's allegations _ that he conspired to kill large numbers of Americans in the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings of four U.S. airliners.

``At this point I do not believe you are prepared to make a guilty plea because you are not prepared to admit the essence of the conspiracy,'' Brinkema said.

Moussaoui said some of government's allegations against him were true, while others were not.

``They allege I provided a guest house, I accept,'' he said. ``If they allege I provide training, it is possible for me to accept,'' he said. ``But it doesn't still put me on the plane.''

The indictment itself is vague about Moussaoui's alleged role in the Sept. 11 conspiracy. Most of the indictment details the actions of the 19 hijackers. As for Moussaoui, it charges that he was present at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan in 1998 and that he received money from a man, Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, who also sent money to the hijackers. It also says that many of Moussaoui's actions, like taking flight training and joining a gym, mirror those of the hijackers.

After Thursday's hearing, Dunham said he believes the government's case against Moussaoui is ``not strong,'' although he said he is still reviewing all the government's evidence.

Prosecutors, in a filing Thursday, said the evidence ``will overwhelmingly establish the defendant's guilt of every charge in the indictment.''

The trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 30. Brinkema told the government that if the case continues to trial, she will not allow prosecutors to mention Moussaoui had tried to plead guilty once.

``There was no guilty plea,'' the judge said before adjourning Thursday's hearing. Last week, Brinkema entered innocent pleas on Moussaoui's behalf, and those will now stand until the trial.

Moussaoui's mother, Aicha el-Wafi, attended Thursday's hearing and said her son told her last month that he was not involved in Sept. 11.

``I am very happy my son decided to plead not guilty,'' el-Wafi said.

Moussaoui again asked permission to meet with Charles Freeman, a Muslim lawyer from Texas who has agreed to advise Moussaoui on federal law. But Brinkema has refused to allow Freeman and Moussaoui to meet because Freeman has refused to comply with courthouse rules.