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Bin Laden relative's trial will not hear from accused September 11 mastermind

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jurors deciding the fate of a son in law of Osama bin Laden will not hear testimony from the accused mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a U.S. judge ruled on Tuesday.

Judge Lewis Kaplan rejected as "entirely baseless" a motion by defense lawyers to admit the testimony in the trial of Suleiman Abu Ghaith, 48, a former al Qaeda spokesman who is one of the highest profile people to face terrorism-related charges in a civilian court in the United States.

Mohammed, who is being held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had said in response to written questions from the defense that Abu Ghaith "was not a military man and had nothing to do with" al Qaeda military operations.

Instead, Mohammed speculated, Abu Ghaith may have been chosen as a spokesman based on his "rhetorical ability."

But Kaplan said Mohammed's 14-page declaration contained no evidence that he had any relevant personal knowledge.

"There is not even evidence in this document that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was in the same country as the defendant during the same time period," Kaplan said.

The U.S. government accuses Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti, of acting as a mouthpiece and recruiter for al Qaeda following the September 11, 2001 attacks in which four passengers aircraft were hijacked so they could be flown into buildings. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Prosecutors claim Abu Ghaith was aware of further planned attacks against Americans, including the shoe bomb plot attempted aboard a plane by Briton Richard Reid in late 2001. The government contends Abu Ghaith spent time in Afghanistan with bin Laden after the attacks. Bin Laden, a founder of al Qaeda, was killed in May 2011 by U.S. forces at his hideout in Pakistan.

In February, Kaplan delayed the trial for a week to give defense lawyers a chance to submit hundreds of written questions to Mohammed, but he has repeatedly expressed skepticism that Abu Ghaith would have the right to introduce Mohammed's testimony.

On Tuesday, he reiterated his position, saying that the dispute over Mohammed's testimony was "much ado about nothing."

"Does he address what Suleiman Abu Ghaith knows or doesn't know?" Kaplan said of Mohammed's declaration. "No. He doesn't touch it with a 10-foot pole."

Prosecutors have shown jurors video of Abu Ghaith warning Americans in October 2001 that "the storm of airplanes will not stop."

Abu Ghaith is charged with conspiring to kill Americans, providing material support and resources to terrorists and conspiring to provide such support. He faces life in prison if convicted.

Abu Ghaith's lawyers, who began putting on his defense on Monday, argue that there is no evidence he knew about any specific future attacks.

In a letter to Kaplan filed shortly after Tuesday's hearing, Stanley Cohen, one of Abu Ghaith's lawyers, said Mohammed's lawyer had informed him that Mohammed was willing to appear via video feed during the trial to answer any questions from either side.

In light of that information, Cohen asked the judge to reconsider his decision to bar Mohammed's testimony, though it appeared unlikely that Kaplan would grant the request.

The case is U.S. v. Abu Ghayth, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 98-cr-01023.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Grant McCool and Cynthia Osterman)

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