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US Federal Appeals Court Hears Arguments in Moussaoui Case - 2003-12-03

Lawyers for the U.S. government and for terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui made arguments before a federal appeals court in Virginia Wednesday. At issue is whether Mr. Moussaoui has the right to call other al-Qaida captives as witnesses in his conspiracy trial.

Zacarias Moussaoui remains the only person charged in connection with the September 11, 2001 terrorist plot that launched the attacks on New York and Washington.

As part of his defense, his lawyers want to call as witnesses other al-Qaida captives being held by the U.S. government. Government lawyers have so far refused that request. They contend that allowing the captives to testify in open court would jeopardize national security information related to the war on terrorism.

The judge in the Moussaoui case has ruled that he should be allowed to call the witnesses to testify. And since the government has refused, Judge Leonie Brinkema decided that the government could not seek the death penalty if Mr. Moussaoui is found guilty of conspiracy.

A federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, is now considering the issue. The Moussaoui defense team argues other al-Qaida members held by the government could back up their client's claim that he was not part of the September 11 plot.

Government attorneys argue that Mr. Moussaoui is trying to benefit from the war on terror by gaining access to terrorist suspects now being held. The government also says questioning those witnesses could reveal classified information that might help other terrorists. During Wednesday's arguments, a government lawyer urged the appeals court to allow prosecutors to pursue a death penalty if Mr. Moussaoui is found guilty.

Zacarias Moussaoui is a French citizen of Moroccan descent who was arrested a few weeks prior to the September 11 attacks. He has said he is a member of al-Qaida but was not part of the September 11 plot.

Whichever way the appeals court rules could have a significant impact on how the government prosecutes suspected terrorists in U.S. civilian courts. If the government loses the appeal, the case could go to the U.S. Supreme Court.