Germany convicts Sept. 11 plotter

Moroccan student gets 15 years for aiding hijackers

1st verdict in terror attacks

February 20, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HAMBURG, Germany - Delivering the first verdict connected to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a German court convicted a Moroccan student yesterday of assisting airline hijackers in the killing of more than 3,000 people, and it sentenced him to the maximum term of 15 years in prison.

A panel of seven judges found that the student, Mounir el-Motassadeq, 28, was a member of al-Qaida and knowingly aided the terrorist network's Hamburg cell, which included three of the hijackers involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In their decision, judges rebuffed claims by defense lawyers that their client was denied a fair trial because they lacked access to classified documents and to a number of witnesses who are in U.S. custody.

In testimony during the four-month trial, Motassadeq, who came to Germany in 1993 as an electrical engineering student, presented himself as a friend who only unwittingly aided the plans of other cell members to conduct the terrorist attacks.

In his concluding statements last week during the summary by the defense, Motassadeq decried the attacks in New York and Washington.

"I hope that something like Sept. 11 never happens again," he said.

Although he admitted attending a terrorist training camp sponsored by Osama bin Laden, he denied knowing of the plot carried out by al-Qaida's Hamburg cell and others.

The judges, who had expressed skepticism during the trial about Motassadeq's account, concluded that he was a full-fledged member of the cell led by Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks, and thus guilty of being an accessory to murder.

"The accused belonged to the group surrounding Atta from the time it was founded," Albrecht Mentz, the lead judge, said. "This group of Arab-Muslim students planned the attacks out of hatred for the United States and Israel."

He added, "They wanted to strike at the foundations of the United States with this attack of unprecedented dimensions."

Mentz said Motassadeq had played a key logistical role by making wire transfers for one of the Sept. 11 pilots, Marwan al-Shehhi, and helping to cover the tracks of the other cell members while they were in Afghanistan and later in the United States.

The judges based their decisions in large part on statements by witnesses who knew the cell members during their time as students in Hamburg.

One student, who had lived during the late 1990s in a dormitory with Motassadeq, testified during the trial that he had once heard the defendant make ominous statements, which stuck in his memory after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"They want to do something big," the witness recalled hearing. "`The Jews will burn, and we will dance on their graves.'"

Mentz mentioned the quotation at least three times as evidence that Motassadeq was motivated by a deeply felt anti-Semitism and hatred of the United States.

Similarly, the judge dismissed claims by the defendant that he had traveled to al-Qaida's training camp in Afghanistan as a part of a religious commitment inspired by a mandate he claimed to have read in the Quran that a Muslim learn to shoot, ride and swim.

Mentz, who during the trial had asked the defendant whether he had also learned to ride and swim in Afghanistan, called this explanation "not worthy of belief."

He noted that other members of the cell were also in the camp at the same time. "The trip must have served another purpose," he said.

The judges apparently accepted the argument made by the prosecution during the trial that a "mosaic" of evidence proved that Motassadeq must have known that other cell members were planning a terrorist attack and that by aiding them he had become an accomplice to their crimes.

"He fulfilled his task, he knew about the preparations and he supported the planning," Mentz said.

In a key decision, which could form the basis of an appeal in the trial, the judges also rejected contentions by defense lawyers that the German government's refusal to hand over key intelligence information provided by the U.S. government amounted to a limitation of their client's right to a fair trial.

A file of intelligence was provided by U.S. authorities from interrogations of Ramzi Binalshibh, another Hamburg cell leader, who is in American custody and is believed by investigators to have been an important leader of al-Qaida.

Yesterday, Motassadeq's defense lawyers said they would appeal the decision on the grounds of insufficient evidence and their lack of access to key intelligence.

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