"Can you sentence to death someone who did not kill?"

Zacarias Moussaoui's French attorney defends his client -- and blasts the U.S.'s "barbaric" death penalty.

By Julian Guthrie
Published April 27, 2002 7:50PM (EDT)

Sitting in the back of a taxicab in the heart of Paris, the French attorney representing accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui by turns defended his client and denounced the United States for its embrace of the death penalty.

Francois Roux, hired by Moussaoui's mother to represent her son, has pressed the French government not to cooperate with the U.S. in the case. Moussaoui, a 33-year-old French citizen of Moroccan descent, is charged as an accomplice in the Sept. 11 attacks and faces the death penalty.

"Because the American prosecutor said that he is going to seek the death penalty, I personally asked the French government not to collaborate," said Roux, who was in Paris on a quick stopover.

Specifically, Roux said that he would work to ensure that any documents sent from France to the United States are carefully reviewed. If a document could be used to argue in favor of the death penalty, it will not be sent, Roux said, citing international law that allows evidence to be withheld in such cases. No documents have been sent so far.

Reports in the French press have said that French authorities have an extensive file on Moussaoui, whom they had been investigating as a possible terrorist since 1999.

"I want to remind you that there is a key element in this case," Roux said. Pausing for effect, he said, "Mr. Moussaoui was in jail when the attacks took place. Therefore he did not kill. Can you sentence to death someone who did not kill?"

Moussaoui, who has entered a not-guilty plea, was in FBI custody on immigration charges at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. On Monday, the suspect startled an Alexandria, Va., courtroom when he announced his intent to fire his attorneys and represent himself and called for the destruction of the United States and Israel.

Roux said that regardless of whether or not the judge allows Moussaoui to fire his attorneys -- a decision that will largely depend on whether the suspect is found competent in a psychiatric examination -- he would continue to work for him in some capacity and to represent his mother.

Asked about his client's statements, which legal experts believe have made Moussaoui's case much more difficult to defend -- and also raised the specter of a show trial filled with inflammatory speeches -- Roux said that it is not his role to determine innocence or guilt but to ensure that Moussaoui receives a fair trial.

"I will fight to the end" to protect him from being condemned to death, Roux said. France abolished the death penalty in 1981. The United States remains one of the only advanced nations in the world to employ the death penalty.

"Even faced with great crimes, the worst crimes, it is not the role of another to take a life," Roux said. "The death penalty is a barbaric punishment, [one that] prevents any possibility for a person found guilty to evolve, maybe to amend themselves."

He said that the death penalty does not exist in international tribunals, even in cases of genocide. "Even Slobodan Milosevic does not face the threat of death," Roux said, referring to the ousted Yugoslav leader who is accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Roux, who lives in Montpellier, has become well-known in France for his representation of high-profile clients including Jose Bové, the anti-globalization crusader made famous by his attack in 1999 on a McDonald's restaurant. Roux's specialty, however, is human rights cases. In recent years, Roux has represented genocide suspects in Rwanda -- work that apparently influenced Moussaoui's mother, Aicha El Wafi, who lives in southern France, to contact him.

"She came to me because she knew of my specialty regarding human rights and particularly my commitment towards the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, for which I've been working for for three years. That's why she came to see me. She asked me if I would agree to defend her son."

Roux recently took El Wafi with him to America to meet her son. Although neither Roux nor El Wafi was able to meet with the suspect (she declined to meet with her son because of the required presence of the FBI at their meeting), Roux said that Moussaoui's court-appointed American lawyers integrated him into their defense team. Roux said that El Wafi believes her son is innocent. She hasn't spoken with him since he was incarcerated but has received letters from him. "[Moussaoui] told his mom in a letter, 'I'm innocent of the charges.'"

In the six-count indictment against Moussaoui -- also known as "Shaqil" and "Abu Khalid al Sahrawi" -- the government asserts that he "willfully and knowingly conspired and agreed to kill persons within the United States."

The indictment charges that Moussaoui, who holds a master's degree from Southbank University in England, followed the same pattern of the 19 hijackers who crashed four jetliners in New York, Washington and western Pennsylvania, killing more than 3,000 people.

The government charges that Moussaoui attended al-Qaida training camps; signed up for flight training schools in the U.S.; attempted to open a crop-dusting business; purchased knives and other equipment; joined a gym to begin physical training; and received money from an alleged member of a German terrorist cell who was said to have funded some of the hijackers. Four of the six charges in the indictment could lead to the death penalty.

In coming weeks, Moussaoui will undergo a mental examination to determine if he is competent to represent himself at trial. U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said she would probably grant his request to fire his attorneys if he was found competent.

Roux said that despite what happens he would remain involved in the case, pointing out that while the other three defense attorneys were court-appointed, he was personally hired by El Wafi to defend her son. Roux also said that he would continue to represent El Wafi, as she has been deposed and needs representation.

Reached at his office Monday, U.S. Attorney Robert Spencer, the lead government attorney in the case, declined to comment on Roux's role or on the latest statements by Moussaoui. A trial date has been set for Oct. 14.

Julian Guthrie

Julian Guthrie is a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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