BERLIN – A Tunisian man accused of planning attacks in Germany for Al Qaeda (search) was acquitted of terrorism charges Wednesday but found guilty of illegal weapons possession and tax evasion. He was sentenced to three years, nine months in prison.
The verdict marked another setback for the German government, which has had difficulty making charges stick in several post-Sept. 11 terror cases.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Ihsan Garnaoui (search), 34, planned attacks on U.S. or Jewish targets to coincide with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. They had sought a six-year prison sentence on charges that included attempting to form a terrorist group.
The Berlin state court found Garnaoui guilty only of the lesser charges, which also included immigration violations.
Garnaoui was arrested in Berlin on March 20, 2003, the day the invasion began. Prosecutors had claimed he started training at one of Usama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan in 2001 and later received orders from an unknown Al Qaeda member to plan attacks in Germany and recruit others.
The court said there was evidence that he went abroad to train for terrorist attacks and endorsed violence in discussions with others, but that prosecutors failed to prove he was recruiting for a terror group.
"General discussions about the question of whether one may take violent action against 'nonbelievers' does not constitute (attempted) creation of a terrorist group," the court said in a statement.
He allegedly returned to Germany in January 2003 with the help of a forged passport after a journey through South Africa and Belgium.
Garnaoui's lawyers maintained there was no proof he was ever in Afghanistan.
In other cases, German prosecutors are retrying Mounir el Motassadeq (search), a Moroccan student, for allegedly helping the Hamburg-based Sept. 11 hijackers. An appeals court threw out his 2003 conviction and ordered the retrial, ruling he had been unfairly denied the testimony of Al Qaeda suspects in U.S. custody.
Abdelghani Mzoudi, a fellow Moroccan who was tried on the same charges, was acquitted in February 2004 by a Hamburg court.