Moroccan sentenced for links to Sept. 11

German court gives him 7 years but absolves him of planning the attacks

August 20, 2005|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Jeffrey Fleishman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BERLIN - A Moroccan with links to the Sept. 11 hijackers was sentenced to seven years in prison yesterday for belonging to a terrorist organization, but a German court found that he was not involved in plotting the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

Mounir Motassadeq, 31, a former Hamburg university student and friend of Mohamed Atta and two other hijackers, was being retried. In 2003, Motassadeq was the first person convicted in the Sept. 11 attacks, but the case was overturned by an appeals court that ruled he had been denied access to testimony of alleged al-Qaida operatives in U.S. custody.

The legal proceedings strained relations between the United States and the German court system, and underscored how difficult it is while combating terrorism to grant a suspect a fair trial without divulging intelligence that could jeopardize other investigations.

German prosecutors were angered last year when Motassadeq's friend Abdelghani Mzoudi was acquitted of similar charges after the U.S. government refused to turn over information.

The U.S. Justice Department would not provide witnesses in its custody but reportedly shared summaries of interrogations of al-Qaida mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, the alleged liaison between al-Qaida and the hijackers.

The summaries indicated that Motassadeq was unaware of the plot, but the German court was frustrated by the lack of details and evidence it was provided. The court was also troubled that the information might have been obtained by torture, which would make it inadmissible under German law.

"How are we supposed to do justice to our task when important documents are withheld from us?" Judge Ernst-Rainer Schudt, presiding over the Hamburg court, said from the bench. "It's an unsatisfactory situation."

Motassadeq, the first person convicted as an accessory to the attacks, was sentenced to 15 years in prison 2003. Yesterday, he was found guilty of the lesser charge of belonging to a terrorist organization.

In explaining the court's decision and the shorter sentence, Schudt said there were "indications Motassadeq was not initiated in all the details [of the attack]. Our impression is that the defendant is too lightweight for such a task. ... He was not the same caliber as Atta."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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