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Government's Appeal Fails in Moussaoui Case

Defendant wants access to an Al Qaeda suspect in custody. Court says it lacks authority to rule.

June 27, 2003|From the Washington Post

A federal court Thursday dismissed the government's appeal of a ruling that allowed accused Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui to interview a senior Al Qaeda operative, setting up a possible confrontation between the executive and judicial branches.

The opinion by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals did not address the overriding constitutional issues of whether Moussaoui's right to interview witnesses who could help his defense outweighed the government's national security concerns.

Rather, the decision was based on jurisdictional grounds, with the members of a three-judge panel saying they were "compelled to conclude that we are without authority" to rule because the government was premature in making its appeal.

Still, the decision has a major effect on the prosecution of Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States in connection with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and cases against future terrorism suspects.

Experts and sources close to the case said the Richmond, Va.-based appeals court essentially gave the government two options: Defy the order of a federal judge and suffer the consequences or drop the charges against Moussaoui and move his case to a military tribunal.

Thursday's twist in the complicated Moussaoui case stems from a decision in late January by U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema in Alexandria, Va., who ordered that Moussaoui and his standby lawyers could question Ramzi Binalshibh, the self-described coordinator of the Sept. 11 attacks, in a videotaped deposition. Binalshibh was captured in Pakistan and is being held at an undisclosed location.

The government objected, arguing that disrupting the key interrogation and allowing Moussaoui, an admitted Al Qaeda member, to question him would irreparably harm national security. The 4th Circuit on Thursday said the government would have to decline to produce Binalshibh for the deposition and be sanctioned by Brinkema before it had jurisdiction over the case.

Moussaoui, a French citizen, is charged with conspiring with Al Qaeda in the Sept. 11 attacks. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

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