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Moussaoui Permitted to Defend Himself in Upcoming Terror Trial

By Tom Jackman
THE WASHINGTON POST -- A federal judge ruled Thursday that Zacarias Moussaoui is mentally competent to fire his court-appointed attorneys and defend himself in the only trial in the United States related to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema set up a difficult defense for Moussaoui, who will not have access to classified or sensitive material and will not be able to interview witnesses from his jail cell in Alexandria, Va.

But despite repeated warnings from Brinkema, who called his decision “unwise,” Moussaoui said that he fully understands “the U.S. system of justice” and that he wanted to proceed without an attorney.

“My life is at risk, and I will never compromise it,” Moussaoui said. “This life is very precious to me. It’s given by God. And I’m not going to, to play with this.”

Moussaoui, 34, could face the death penalty if convicted, but said Thursday -- hinting strongly at his defense -- that he has information that would compel either the judge or the government to release him immediately. “Now that I’m potentially my own lawyer,” Moussaoui said, “I would like to know if it’s possible to apply to the court for immediate release.”

Brinkema deferred the question, but Moussaoui said later during the 80-minute hearing in Alexandria that he had “physical evidence that the government was monitoring my movements.... The government knew I was not in contact with these people who are supposed to have done the hijacking.”

Moussaoui said he could explain his innocence in ten minutes of testimony, but Brinkema said that Thursday’s hearing wasn’t the place. Moussaoui already has filed a number of pre-trial motions, which are sealed, and the judge gave him until June 24 to file any more. Brinkema also said she would unseal Moussaoui’s filings unless the lawyers in the case object.

Authorities declined to comment publicly on Moussaoui’s accusations that the government “has following me since I entered the United States of America [in February 2001], and they were engaged in an undercover operation against me and potentially the nineteen hijackers.” But one FBI official said Moussaoui “first came to our attention at the flight school in Minnesota last August.”

Moussaoui also said his residence in London was raided by British authorities in 1998, but he did not explain the significance of that assertion.

Frank W. Dunham Jr., the federal public defender leading Moussaoui’s team, and other defense attorneys said they had not seen or heard of the evidence Moussaoui claimed would set him free. Edward B. MacMahon Jr., one of the attorneys, told the judge that Moussaoui was “very proud of the fact that none of his attorneys know his theory of the case or know what his defense is.”

Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, is charged with conspiring with Osama bin Laden and the nineteen hijackers to carry out the Sept. 11 plot. The indictment does not allege that he had contact with the hijackers. Jury selection is scheduled for late September.

In contrast to the April hearing during which Moussaoui first asked to fire his attorneys, Thursday’s proceedings were more on point. Moussaoui, speaking calmly in English and without the diatribes that marked the last appearance -- in which he called for the destruction of the United States and Israel -- maintained that his defense attorneys were conspiring with the government to kill him.