Terror suspect admits guilt

Moussaoui tries to plead guilty

judge delays ruling

Suspect vows loyalty to bin Laden

He offers information on the Sept. 11 attacks

July 19, 2002|By THE BOSTON GLOBE

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Zacarias Moussaoui admitted that he is a member of al-Qaida and declared his loyalty to suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, stunning lawyers and observers gathered in a federal courtroom here yesterday. He then tried to plead guilty to charges of conspiring to participate in the Sept. 11 attacks, but the judge delayed for a week a decision on whether to accept the new plea.

"I am member of al-Qaida," Moussaoui said. "I pledge b'ayat to Osama bin Laden."

He used an Arabic word that can mean "fealty" or "by divine instructions." During the trial of suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, there was testimony that al-Qaida members sign a contract they call b'ayat, pledging to do whatever bin Laden asks of them in carrying out holy war.

Moussaoui, 34, began the hearing by announcing his intent to enter what he described as an "affirmative" and "pure" plea to the six terrorism conspiracy charges filed against him. When U.S. District Court Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said that she could not recognize such a plea, he angrily declared that he would like to plead guilty and provide information that would keep him from facing the death penalty, the maximum penalty for four of the charges.

"I have many, many information to give to the American people regarding an ongoing conspiracy," Moussaoui said. He said he has intimate knowledge of how the Sept. 11 attacks were carried out.

"I know who done it, which group, when it was decided," he said. "I know who participated."

Brinkema set a hearing for July 25, when she will decide whether to accept Moussaoui's guilty plea after he has had a week to think about it. She has previously entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf after rejecting his attempts to enter a plea of no contest.

Brinkema explained to Moussaoui that a no contest plea, like a guilty plea, would eliminate the prospect of a jury trial, something Moussaoui has said he wants. Both pleas would also bring legal consequences the judge said Moussaoui may not fully understand.

Moussaoui, who is representing himself, laid before the government the difficult choice of cutting a deal with an admitted al-Qaida member who allegedly conspired to kill 3,000 Americans or proceeding to trial in pursuit of a death sentence and forgoing information that might prevent future attacks.

"That's the ultimate tough decision for the government," said Eric Holder, deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration. "He could provide very, very valuable information. But is it valuable enough to make this Justice Department drop its pursuit of the death penalty for him?"

Officials at the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria, whose prosecutors are handling the case, declined to comment.

The courtroom was packed for the hearing. Gasps and snickers could be heard when Moussaoui said he is a member of al-Qaida and, later, that he wants to plead guilty. The eight members of the "new" Black Panther Party, who came to support Moussaoui but have not met with him, sat silently.

Moussaoui was in court yesterday because of the government's intention to make sure he is eligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors obtained a new indictment against him on Tuesday, spelling out for a grand jury aggravating factors such as premeditation and torture that could make him eligible for the death penalty under federal law. A recent ruling by the Supreme Court made it clear that such aggravating factors have to be considered by a jury, so they were added to the charges Moussaoui faces.

Each time criminal charges are amended, a defendant is allowed to make a plea. Ordinarily, such pleas are standard. But not much in the Moussaoui case has been ordinary.

He has fired his lawyers, refusing to meet with them or accept documents from them even as Brinkema has insisted that they be retained as standby counsel. Moussaoui has blasted the U.S. judicial system, said he prays for the destruction of Israel and is certain his trial is no more than a farce that will lead to his execution. His briefs, written in longhand and full of scorn and contempt, have been highly critical of Brinkema, whom he has called a Nazi and a "She-Clinton."

"I'd like you stop this nonsense game you are playing here," he told Brinkema yesterday. "You do not have my best interests at heart."

The judge said she is inclined to allow Moussaoui to plead guilty, but ordered a weeklong recess to give him time to think about his decision. The judge noted that Moussaoui has frequently changed his mind on legal tactics and wondered aloud if he would stick to his decision to plead guilty.

"Bet on me," he said. "I will."

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