New York Times
February 13, 2002
Case Tying Algerian to Sept. 11 Attacks Collapses in Britain
By ALAN COWELL
LONDON -- An American effort to extradite an Algerian pilot on charges of direct links to the Sept. 11 hijackers collapsed today, and the pilot, once identified by American investigators as the "lead trainer" of the attackers, walked free on $14,200 bail.
With his arms wrapped tight around his wife and his mother, the accused man, Lotfi Raissi, somberly left a heavily guarded courtroom proclaiming his innocence after spending five months in the Belmarsh maximum security jail in southeast London.
District Judge Timothy Workman dismissed an effort by James Lewis, a lawyer representing the United States, to prevent bail.
Mr. Lewis said the American authorities no longer intended to bring terrorism charges against Mr. Raissi, leaving in place only two relatively minor charges of withholding information about a knee injury and a minor conviction for theft on a 1993 application for an American pilot's license.
The judge accepted an argument by Mr. Raissi's lawyer that those charges did not merit the pilot's continued detention. It was not clear if the United States would continue to press for extradition on the nonterror charges when Mr. Raissi's hearing resumes on March 28.
Every attempt by United States authorities to link Mr. Raissi to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has been disproved or withdrawn during five months of extradition hearings since his arrest on Sept. 21 at his home near Heathrow airport in London.
"At the moment, one must assume that there will not be terrorism charges brought against him," said Mr. Lewis, effectively acknowledging that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had failed to come up with public evidence of terrorist connections to keep Mr. Raissi in prison. "The United States does not presently intend to seek the extradition of Mr. Raissi on terrorism charges."
Mr. Raissi was given bail on condition that he surrender his passport, live at an address specified to the authorities and make no effort to secure international travel documents.
Flanked by uniformed police officers, Mr. Raissi, 27, broke down in convulsive sobs, cradling his head in his hands as Judge Workman ordered him freed.
In a glass-fronted gallery above him, Mr. Raissi's family and supporters cheered while family members, including his Algerian mother, Raeba Raissi, and French wife, Sonia, sobbed into white handkerchiefs.
"We believe justice has been done," Sonia Raissi told reporters. "My message to the F.B.I. is: You arrested him for terrorism. Why do you want to extradite him on these minor charges? They should drop the charges."
Mr. Raissi himself made no comment to reporters but his lawyer, Richard Egan, said: "He maintains his innocence regarding the Sept. 11 atrocities and is pleased the U.S. government has recognized there is no basis for his extradition on that matter."
American authorities initially asserted that Mr. Raissi had been closely associated with Hani Hanjour, the Sept. 11 attacker thought to have flown a hijacked airliner into the Pentagon. The two men were said to have traveled and trained at flying schools together. There was even said to be a home video of the two men together. But, over a series of extradition hearings, those suggestions have been withdrawn.
In court today, Hugo Keith, an attorney representing Mr. Raissi, said American authorities had been unable to substantiate assertions that Mr. Raissi trained at American flying schools alongside Mr. Hanjour.
The United States authorities also sought to link Mr. Raissi to another terrorism suspect, Amar Makhnulif, known as Abu Doha, who is accused in the United States of involvement in the millennium plot to attack Los Angeles airport. Mr. Raissi was said to have conspired with a man identified only as "Dahmani" to falsify immigration forms, and Mr. Dahmani's phone number was said to have been found in a diary belonging to Mr. Makhnulif.
But Mr. Keith, one of the lawyers for Mr. Raissi, said it had since been proved that the diary belonged to someone identified only as Kermani, so there was "no link at all" between Mr. Raissi and Mr. Makhnulif. "The Americans now seem unwilling to withdraw from their initial position and accept on this occasion that they pursued the wrong person," Mr. Keith said.
Mr. Raissi's release on bail was foreshadowed at an earlier extradition hearing last month when Judge Workman urged United States authorities to substantiate their claims that Mr. Raissi had links to terrorists.
In Washington, an F.B.I. spokesman said the bureau had no comment on the decision by the British court to release Mr. Raissi on bail.
Copyright © 2002, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.
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