Oct. trial set in Sept. 11 hijack plot

Defendant could face death sentence in Va. federal court

Accused as `20th hijacker'

Moussaoui invokes the name of Allah, refuses to enter plea

January 03, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Zacarias Moussaoui invoked the name of Allah and refused to enter a plea yesterday to a six-count criminal indictment that accused him of a role in the Sept. 11 terrorist plot. His lawyer and the judge in the case entered a plea of not guilty for him.

At a half-hour hearing conducted under heavy security at the federal courthouse, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of U.S. District Court scheduled Oct. 14 to start the trial for Moussaoui, the first person directly charged in the hijackings. The authorities say they believe he was meant to be the 20th hijacker.

Under the schedule, jury selection will begin Sept. 30, about two weeks after the first anniversary of the hijackings.

Brinkema rejected arguments by Moussaoui's court-appointed lawyers that prospective jurors would be influenced by the expected extensive publicity shortly before the trial. The lawyers had sought to have the trial postponed until next year.

At the hearing, Moussaoui, 33, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, addressed the court once, when asked to enter his plea.

"In the name of Allah, I do not have anything to plead," he said in heavily accented English. "I enter no plea. Thank you very much."

Brinkema replied, "I will interpret that as a plea of not guilty."

In response, Moussaoui's lead lawyer, Frank W. Dunham Jr., said, "Yes."

The judge scheduled a series of potentially crucial pretrial hearings in what is likely to be a complex case. Prosecutors and defense lawyers are widely expected to clash over the government's use of classified information in the trial and the prosecutors' expected effort to seek the death penalty.

Defense lawyers might seek to move the trial from this city a few miles from where one airliner smashed into the Pentagon.

From the wide-ranging scope of the arguments yesterday, it seems evident the trial will provide the government with its best opportunity so far to lay out its evidence against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks and to present its full case against Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.

The possibility of a death sentence has turned the case into a greater spectacle, particularly in France, where strong sentiment against sentencing Moussaoui to death has brought harsh criticism of the prosecution.

Senior Bush administration officials have privately said they were careful to obtain necessary evidence from abroad before indicting Moussaoui, predicting that other governments might not have cooperated as fully had they known that the United States might seek a death sentence.

A federal grand jury indicted Moussaoui on Dec. 11 on six counts of conspiracy, four of which carry a possible death sentence. The indictment accuses him of conspiring with bin Laden and al-Qaida to kill thousands of people Sept. 11.

Brinkema set March 29 as the deadline for prosecutors to decide on seeking the death penalty.

The indictment said Moussaoui engaged in some of the same activities as the 19 hijackers. It said he had visited an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan, enrolled in flight training, asked about crop dusting and bought knives.

The indictment said Moussaoui had received payments from a man in Germany, Ramzi Muhammad Abdullah bin al-Shibh, who officials theorize was a paymaster for at least one hijacker and shared an apartment with Mohamed Atta, who the authorities say was the ringleader of the plot.

After speaking yesterday, Moussaoui, who wore a dark-green jump suit with "PRISONER" across the back, slumped in his chair at the defense table. He said nothing to his lawyers and stared ahead impassively as his lawyers and prosecutors wrangled over hearing dates.

Dunham said Moussaoui could speak English and did not need an interpreter.

Brinkema swept aside a defense request to postpone the trial until next year, dismissing defense contentions that the sensitive international nature of the case, publicity and complex classified evidence require additional time.

Another lawyer for Moussaoui, Gerald Zerkin, urged the judge to postpone the trial.

"The defense feels it cannot prepare its case for trial in the time proposed by the United States," Zerkin said. "The need to be further away from Sept. 11 is obvious."

A federal prosecutor, Robert Spencer, said that the trial date was reasonable and that publicity about the hijackings was "going to have to be dealt with by the court no matter when" the trial was held.

After the hearing, Francois Roux, a lawyer for Moussaoui's mother, Aicha el-Wafi, told reporters outside the courthouse that Wafi had decided not to attend because she thought that it would be too upsetting.

Wafi, who has insisted her son did nothing wrong, was generally expected to return to France soon.

U.S. officials have said Moussaoui might have been preparing to join a hijacking team. The plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field had four hijackers; the other three aircraft had five each.

He was arrested Aug. 16 in Minnesota on immigration violations after he had aroused suspicion by trying to buy time on a flight simulator for a jumbo jet.

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