U.S. court says Moussaoui can act as own lawyer

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia, Reuters

A federal judge ruled on Thursday that Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of conspiring in the Sept. 11 attacks, is mentally competent to represent himself even though dismissing his court-appointed lawyers will deny him access to secret information seen as essential to the trial.

Moussaoui told U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema he understood the problems of representing himself but said the case should be thrown out anyway because he had not been in contact with the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Brinkema warned Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, it was unwise for him to represent himself but approved his request to fire his court-appointed lawyers after reviewing reports that showed he was mentally competent.

“I think it is unwise for any defendant to proceed without counsel, especially in a case of this degree of significance and seriousness,” she said. “You make a bad situation more difficult by being (your own lawyer).”

Moussaoui, who stunned a hearing in April by announcing he wanted to fire his lawyers in part because he felt they were part of a conspiracy by the government and the judge to kill him, said he did not expect to go free.

“I understand fully the U.S. system of justice and I will never see the light again. I understand this,” Moussaoui said as he stood calmly at the podium after Brinkema declared him fit to represent himself. “But it is not possible for me to entrust my life to somebody else. My life is at risk and I will never compromise it.”

Moussaoui was more reserved than during his previous court appearance on April 22 when he delivered a 50-minute discourse, quoting from the Koran and calling for the destruction of the United States and Israel.

He is the only person charged so far in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks in which hijacked aircraft were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Four of the six charges against him carry the death penalty.

After the 90-minute hearing, Moussaoui’s former defense team said he could not get a fair trial acting as his own lawyer because of the large amounts of classified material available only to attorneys who have security clearances.

“We don’t believe Mr. Moussaoui can get a fair trial given the conditions of his confinement and the restrictions imposed upon him by the government in terms of reviewing evidence,” attorney Edward MacMahon said outside the courthouse.

“We think it’s a disaster,” added attorney Frank Dunham who said the lawyers were baffled by Moussaoui’s belief that they were part of a conspiracy against him.

Moussaoui, 34, sat as far as possible from the attorneys while in court. He did turn and offer a wave to his mother, seated in the second row with a black scarf on her head, who broke into tears when she saw her son arrive in court.

Moussaoui is charged with conspiring with Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network to carry out the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 3,000 people were killed. U.S. officials suspect Moussaoui, detained on immigration charges in August after rousing suspicions at a flight school, was meant to have been among the hijackers.

But Moussaoui said he had no contact with the hijackers.

“I have information … (which) will say that this case is not as it seems,” he said in one of several attempts to raise the issue with Brinkema, who said it was not relevant to the day’s discussion.

“The (U.S.) government have been following me … engaged in a covert operation against me,” he said. “They know I was not in contact with the people who were to have done this hijacking.”

Brinkema refused to accept Moussaoui’s request to enter an “emergency motion” to withdraw the case and warned him to follow court rules if he wanted to represent himself.

Brinkema also ruled that the court-appointed lawyers had to stay on as “stand-by” counsel to advise him on legal issues, although Moussaoui repeatedly said he would have nothing to do with them. The defense team had also pleaded with her not to require them to continue since he would not meet with them.

Moussaoui said he hoped an American Muslim lawyer would replace them as stand-by counsel. He said the attorney, who he would not name because he felt it could put his life at risk, had offered to defend him without charge.