German court convicts Moroccan Sept. 11 suspect

Saturday, August 20, 2005

HAMBURG, Germany -- A Moroccan man was convicted Friday and sentenced to seven years in prison for belonging to a terrorist cell that included three of the Sept. 11 hijackers, long-awaited decisions welcomed by the German government and a victim's relative.

U.S. authorities faulted

Yet the Hamburg state court faulted U.S. authorities' failure to deliver more evidence as it acquitted Mounir el Motassadeq of direct involvement in the attacks, finding him innocent of more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder.

El Motassadeq, a slight, bearded 31-year-old, watched calmly as presiding Judge Ernst-Rainer Schudt announced the verdict, which came after a series of setbacks and a yearlong retrial.

In 2003, the Moroccan became the first person anywhere to be convicted in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide hijackings, but his conviction was overturned last year. He had been free since shortly after a federal appeals court ordered the retrial, ruling he was unfairly denied evidence from suspects in U.S. custody.

"I'm ecstatic," said Dominic Puopolo Jr., an American co-plaintiff whose mother died in one of the planes which struck the World Trade Center. "Having devoted a year of my life to this, I feel vindicated.

"I think that my mother is hopefully -- God willing -- resting a bit more in peace today, and the other family members, too."

Still, Puopolo, speaking by phone from his home in Miami Beach, Fla., said he might join federal prosecutors in appealing el Motassadeq's acquittal on the accessory to murder charges. Defense lawyer Ladislav Anisic pledged his own appeal against what he described as "a semi-acquittal."

'A clear signal'

Germany's top security official, Interior Minister Otto Schily, described the verdict as "a clear signal ... of the determination of the state in the fight against terrorism."

Explaining the court's decision, the judge said the Hamburg-based group that included suicide pilots Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah became "a sect." He said el Motassadeq was part of it in 1999, before its leading members traveled to Afghanistan and were recruited for the al-Qaida attacks on the United States.

Schudt said el Motassadeq's later trip to an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan was evidence of his belief in holy war, but that the court did not find he was initiated into the plot.

"The population needs to be protected against such groups," Schudt said. "The clear picture shows the defendant as a member of a terrorist organization, but not as an accessory to murder."

El Motassadeq was accused of helping pay tuition and other bills for cell members to allow them to live as students while plotting the attacks. Prosecutors had demanded the maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

The Moroccan acknowledged he was close to the hijackers but insisted he knew nothing of their plans. His lawyers criticized the lack of direct testimony from witnesses such as Ramzi Binalshibh, a key Sept. 11 suspect held by the United States.

El Motassadeq already has spent some 2 1/2 years in prison, between his November 2001 arrest and his release in April last year. That time will be deducted from any final sentence.

At his first trial, el Motassadeq was convicted on all charges and given the maximum sentence. However, a federal appeals court faulted the lack of testimony from the American-held al-Qaida suspects.

For the retrial, the U.S. Justice Department allowed summaries from the interrogation of Binalshibh and others but did not provide the full reports or allow the captives to testify.

"How are we supposed to do justice to our task when important documents are withheld from us?" the judge asked Friday.

According to the statements, Binalshibh -- believed to have been the Hamburg cell's liaison with al-Qaida -- said that he and the three suicide pilots alone comprised the cell.

"This material on its own had no value as evidence," Schudt said, citing concerns over how the statements may have been obtained. Defense lawyers argue that they may have been elicited through torture, making them unusable by a German court.

Nevertheless, Friday's verdict was a relief for German authorities in their struggle to prosecute those close to the al-Qaida cell, which had lived undetected in one of the country's largest cities.

In February 2004, the only other person charged in Germany over the Sept. 11 attacks -- el Motassadeq's friend and fellow Moroccan, Abdelghani Mzoudi -- was acquitted. In June, an appeals court threw out prosecutors' appeal.

"German justice has shown that a terrorist does not walk free, despite a difficult legal situation," chief prosecutor Walter Hemberger told reporters outside the courtroom Friday.

The only person charged in the United States with involvement in the attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui, pleaded guilty in April.

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