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Defense presents case in Sept. 11 trial

Thursday, February 13, 2003

HAMBURG, Germany -- Attorneys for the first Sept. 11 suspect to be tried asked for his acquittal Wednesday, saying that the evidence presented during his trial was circumstantial and based on contradictory witness testimony.

Prosecutors have portrayed Moroccan student Mounir el Motassadeq, 28, as a willing member of a terror cell led by hijacker Mohamed Atta. El Motassadeq says he was friends with Atta and other members of the group, but had no knowledge of their intentions.

El Motassadeq is charged with more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and for being a member of a terrorist organization.

He faces a maximum 15-year prison sentence.

"What we have seen here is suspicions, interpretations of behavior and interpretations of beliefs," defense attorney Hans Leistritz told the Hamburg state court, referring to the defendant's Islamic faith.

"We have neither membership nor support of a terrorist organization, and still less proof that he was an accessory," lawyer Hartmut Jacobi said.

The Hamburg al-Qaida cell included two other hijackers as well as Atta -- Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi.

Prosecutors said the three traveled to Afghanistan in late 1999 with one of their four alleged logisticians, Ramzi Binalshibh. There they are believed to have met with bin Laden to plan the Sept. 11 attacks.

Back in Hamburg, el Motassadeq used his power of attorney over al-Shehhi's bank account to make rent and school fee payments for him.

Leistritz said el Motassadeq was just trying to do al-Shehhi a favor.

"I can imagine that foreign students with no family here would want someone taking care of their accounts when they're out of the country," he said.

In September 2000, el Motassadeq made a $2,500 transfer from al-Shehhi's account that prosecutors said helped finance flight lessons for al-Shehhi and Atta in the United States. But the defense said the fact that their client transferred the money to Binalshibh, rather than directly to al-Shehhi, showed he wasn't involved in their plot.

"The future attackers obviously did not want to let the defendant in on their plans," Jacobi said.

He also cast doubt on testimony by several witnesses. According to a Hamburg librarian, al-Shehhi warned in early 1999 that "something will happen and there will be thousands of dead, and mentioned the World Trade Center."

Around the same time, el Motassadeq described one of several men gathered in the kitchen of the student dormitory where he lived in Hamburg as "our pilot," a former roommate testified.

Defense attorneys questioned the reliability of both statements, while playing down contradictions in el Motassadeq's own testimony.

El Motassadeq repeatedly denied ever having been to Afghanistan before admitting he had attended a camp there when he took the stand on the trial's opening day, Oct. 22.

"He simply was afraid of the questioning," Jacobi said. "When you are in a foreign culture, you often make mistakes and try to talk your way out of them."

He also said prosecutors failed to convincingly prove el Motassadeq's gradual conversion -- under the influence of other members of the Hamburg group -- into an Islamic extremist who hated the United States and was ready for jihad, or holy war.

That el Motassadeq learned to shoot an assault rifle at the camp didn't prove he supports terrorism, the defense said.

Also Wednesday, the court again refused a defense request to seek the release of records of interrogations of Binalshibh, who was captured last September and is now in U.S. custody. The German government has refused, saying that it received the transcripts for intelligence use only, and was backed this week by a federal court.


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