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Sept. 11 suspect: 'I am victim'

LONDON, England (CNN) -- An Algerian pilot accused of involvement in the September 11 attacks but freed by a British court has spoken of his "living nightmare."

The U.S. had accused Lotfi Raissi of training the suicide hijacker who crashed a passenger jet into the Pentagon on September 11 but so far has been unable to substantiate the case against him.

Raissi was held at the high security Belmarsh Prison, south east London, for five-and-a-half months before being released on bail earlier this week after U.S. officials produced no evidence linking him to terrorism.

He told a press conference in London on Friday that he was "totally sympathetic" to the American people over the September 11 atrocity.

"But I have become in turn a victim," he said. "I am a pilot, an Algerian, and a Muslim, and proud to be so, but this is not a crime."

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Raissi is still wanted by the U.S. on minor non-terrorism charges, but is appealing to Washington to drop its extradition request because of the time he has spent in custody.

The Algerian said he had always maintained his faith "that British justice would determine the truth."

Raissi said: "The law says that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

"In my case I feel as though the world perceived me as a guilty man and that I had to try and prove that I was innocent.

"The ordeal I have been through has changed my life, and the life of my family for ever.

"As a young boy I grew up dreaming of being a pilot, all I ever wanted to do was fly planes. It's ironic that my dream was to turn into the worst nightmare of my life."

Raissi described how he was arrested 10 days after the suicide attacks and kept in custody in one of Britain's toughest prisons until Tuesday.

"When I was arrested by the police in this country I was taken naked from my house at three in the morning along with my wife and brother.

"From that day until February 12, when I was released on bail, I was locked up in a cell facing the most serious allegations imaginable.

"You cannot begin to consider what it is like to have the world's media along with the Government of the United States believing that you are responsible for the most dreadful act of terrorism the world has ever seen."

Raissi, who sat between his Catholic wife Sonia and his solicitor Richard Egan as he faced the media, remained composed as he continued reading from a prepared statement.

He said: "I would like to say without reservation that I am totally sympathetic to the suffering of the American people caused by the appalling tragedy that occurred on 11 September, but I would also like to add that I have become in turn a victim of that atrocity.

"I am not a terrorist -- I abhor terrorism, and my family in Algeria has fought terrorism and been the victims of it for a decade.

"I understand that the FBI have to investigate that appalling criminal act to the full extent of their ability, and I also understand that as a pilot and as an Algerian who had been in the United States that they would wish to scrutinise my background.

"What shocked me, however, was that it took five months before the U.S. government informed the court that they were not longer seeking to extradite me on terrorist charges.

"Those five months have destroyed me and all those dear to me, and I do not believe that I will ever recover from the experience.

"Nevertheless I am thankful for the decision made by the judge on February 12, which was what justice demanded. "I am now going to try to rebuild my life as best I can."

Despite the U.S. government not seeking Raissi's extradition on terrorism-related charges they still want him deported from the UK for lying on a Federal Aviation Administration application form for a pilot's licence by failing to declare a conviction for theft at age 19 and failing to declare surgery for a knee injury.

"As they are no longer holding charges and as I have already spent time in custody, I would ask the United States Government to consider dropping those matters against me."

Raissi was arrested at his London home on September 21 on a request from the FBI.

Prosecutors had linked Raissi to Hani Hanjour, the suspected pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which flew into the Pentagon.

The U.S. repeatedly indicated it wished eventually to file a "conspiracy to murder" charge against Raissi, and it filed a request for his extradition.

But he was not indicted for any terror acts and the official U.S. extradition warrant was based only on the minor indictments.

CNN's Sheila MacVicar reported that privately the FBI had retreated from many of its claims, and the defence said that much of the "evidence" simply did not exist, or did not support the allegations.

The FBI alleged that at an Arizona flight school, on five separate occasions in 1998, Raissi and Hanjour shared a flight simulator. The defence said there were no records that showed them using the simulator at the same time.

The FBI also claimed Raissi and Hanjour flew together, in the same small plane in March 1999. The defence said that Hanjour in fact flew that day with another instructor... as noted in the instructor's log book.

There was an alleged videotape which the court was earlier told showed Raissi and Hanjour together. The defence said this was a webcam image of Raissi with a cousin. The U.S. dropped mention of the video in later hearings.

Raissi has been ordered to appear in court March 28 for his extradition hearing.

CNN's Sheila MacVicar contributed to this report.


• Hijack-link suspect bailed
February 12, 2002
• Hijack-link suspect in tears
January 11, 2002
• Terror link suspects in UK court
October 26, 2001



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