A US judge has rejected a government compromise proposal and ruled for a second time that terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui needed to directly interview a senior al-Qaida prisoner to prepare his defence.
US District Judge Leonie Brinkema’s order yesterday virtually ensured that a federal appeals court will hear arguments on June 3 on Moussaoui’s right to question an enemy combatant through a video link.
The US government strongly objected to allowing a defendant charged with plotting deadly attacks on the US to disrupt sensitive interrogations.
Prosecutors reportedly offered summaries of the witness’s statements as an alternative, but Judge Brinkema ruled this was inadequate to protect Moussaoui’s right to potentially favourable information.
The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond has already scheduled the June oral argument, but had asked Judge Brinkema to rule on proposed government substitutions.
Moussaoui, a French citizen who lived in Brixton, south London, is the lone US defendant charged with conspiring with the September 11 attackers and could face the death penalty if convicted of conspiracy to commit terrorism and hijack airliners.
He contends that several al Qaida captives would testify that he was not part of the September 11 plot as charged.
Prosecutors have argued that courts have no power to interfere with questioning of captives from the war on terrorism, and had appealed Judge Brinkema’s order allowing the video interview.
The order permitted access to suspected September 11 mastermind Ramzi Binalshibh, but the eventual decision could have implications for future terrorism defendants who would request the same access.
Even in this case, Moussaoui has already sought access to other prisoners, including another suspected September 11 mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
Moussaoui has said in pleadings that Binalshibh and other al-Qaida captives could back his story that he was a member of Osama bin Laden’s organisation but had no role in the September 11 attacks.
In defence papers released this week by the appeals court, it emerged that Moussaoui contends he was preparing for an operation in another country after September 11.
He was arrested in August 2001 in Minnesota after arousing suspicions at a flight school and was in prison when the hijackers struck.
The appeals court in Richmond ordered that unclassified portions of the June 3 hearing be made public.
Eleven news organisations had sought the public hearing after the Justice Department tried to keep the entire proceeding secret.