After three years of failing to hold anyone accountable for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Germany is preparing to expel accused members of the Hamburg-based cell that led the...

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HAMBURG, Germany — After three years of failing to hold anyone accountable for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Germany is preparing to expel accused members of the Hamburg-based cell that led the hijackings to countries with more aggressive records of prosecuting terrorism.

Although two criminal trials are pending, German officials, legal experts and lawyers involved in the cases said the investigation into the al-Qaida cell has been stymied by this country’s lax anti-terrorism laws, unfavorable judicial rulings and a lack of evidence, making it increasingly doubtful that anyone in Hamburg will be convicted.

The situation is apparent at the judicial complex in Hamburg, where one defendant, Mounir el Motassadeq, is being tried on more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and membership in a terrorist organization. Despite the gravity of the charges, he is a free man, walking alone from his home to the century-old courthouse each morning, unguarded.

He was convicted of the charges last year, making him the only person anywhere found guilty of playing a role in the plot to attack targets in the United States. But he was freed in April, after an appellate court rejected the verdict as based on flimsy evidence and other legal deficiencies.

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A retrial began in August and is scheduled to last at least two more months, but the basis of the prosecution’s case has been undermined by its own witnesses, including one the presiding judge accused of “fantasizing” during his testimony.

Attorneys for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks have filed a civil suit against el Motassadeq, in part to prevent him from collecting up to $50,000 in compensation from the German government for wrongful prosecution if he is acquitted.

In July, officials in Hamburg filed papers to deport el Motassadeq and a second suspect, Abdelghani Mzoudi, to their native Morocco, a pre-emptive measure in case they are found not guilty or receive a light sentence.

Could take years

Legal experts said it could take several months or years to expel any accused Hamburg cell members from Germany.

The Moroccan government has no charges pending against el Motassadeq or Mzoudi. But their attorneys noted the Moroccan government has a close working relationship with U.S. counterterrorism officials and has cooperated on other investigations involving al-Qaida.

Bernd-Ruedeger Sonnen, a law professor at the University of Hamburg, said German officials want to minimize any political embarrassment that would result from a failure to convict by kicking the defendants out of the country as quickly as possible.

“It would be an affront to the U.S. population to acquit them,” Sonnen said.

German authorities are also trying to extradite to Spain another alleged member of the Hamburg cell, Mamoun Darkazanli, a Syrian-born German national. He has been indicted in Spain for allegedly playing a supporting role in the Sept. 11 attacks. He has been listed as a terrorism financier by U.S. Treasury Department officials, who have accused him of being a longtime financial backer of al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

Germany has been investigating Darkazanli for years but has not charged him with any crimes. He remained free in Hamburg until last month, when he was arrested on a Spanish warrant seeking his extradition.

When it comes to dealing with Islamic radicals, Germany has some of the most tolerant laws in Europe. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, it was legal in Germany to belong to a foreign terrorist organization such as al-Qaida as long as it was not active inside the country.

Police and prosecutors complain they remain hampered by a legal code that was drafted after World War II in hopes of reining in Nazi-style abuses and that places a greater burden of proof on German investigators than counterparts in other European countries.

El Motassadeq and Mzoudi have acknowledged they visited al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan and were close friends with the ringleaders of the Hamburg-based cell, including hijackers Mohamed Atta, Ziad Jarrah and Marwan Al-Shehhi.

Testimony and evidence also have shown they gave legal and financial cover to the hijackers when they left Germany to prepare for the attacks.

But their attorneys have argued, successfully so far, that there is no proof they intentionally aided in or knew specific details of the plot in advance, two elements necessary for a conviction.

Prosecutors suffered another setback at the start of el Motassadeq’s retrial in August, when the U.S. government provided the Hamburg court with summaries of interrogations of two captured al-Qaida leaders, Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, whom investigators say were the architects of the plot.

The interrogation reports indicated the hijackers did not tell Mzoudi, el Motassadeq or anyone in Hamburg of their plans.

Dominic Puopolo Jr., a Miami Beach computer consultant whose mother was killed in the attacks, said it has been an uphill battle for the prosecution ever since. “Everybody was saying this case was lost from day one,” said Puopolo, who moved to Hamburg in August to keep tabs on the proceedings.

He attends the el Motassadeq retrial each day and is allowed to question witnesses under a German law that gives relatives of victims the right to assist in the prosecution. His mother, Sonia Morales Puopolo, was a passenger on the American Airlines Flight 11 that took off from Boston.

Puopolo said U.S. investigators have played cockpit recordings for family members of the victims that make clear his mother was tortured by the hijackers before the jet crashed into the World Trade Center.

Such knowledge, he said, makes it especially difficult for him to watch el Motassadeq and realize there is a possibility no one in Hamburg will be held accountable. “It takes enormous restraint sometimes,” he said.

U.S. help sought

Prosecutors and the five-judge panel overseeing the trial said they hope U.S. officials will provide fresh evidence or allow Muhammed and Binalshibh to be questioned directly. The German federal prosecutor, Kay Nehm, said last week that U.S. officials had agreed to provide more information for the el Motassadeq trial.

Spokesmen for the U.S. Justice and State departments did not respond to requests for comment.

The court has invited members of the Sept. 11 commission to testify about the report they issued last summer. Court officials said they have received no response.