His mentally ill sisters testify for Moussaoui

Defense seeks to demonstrate family's psychiatric problems

April 18, 2006|By RICHARD A. SERRANO | RICHARD A. SERRANO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Zacarias Moussaoui's two sisters told his jury yesterday how their baby brother tried to escape the family's poverty and abuse but instead fell under the spell of Muslim extremists who turned a hopeful young man into one filed with hate.

The videotaped testimony of his sisters, each of whom suffers from serious mental psychoses, was recorded last year.

They were questioned at their quarters in separate French mental institutions, and only after it was certified that they had been taking their medications to ward off their schizophrenia.

They were interviewed in French; their answers were displayed in English subtitles on a dozen TV screens placed around the courtroom.

Defense attorneys played the interviews to demonstrate the grave mental disorders that run through the Moussaoui family, trying to persuade the jury to spare their client's life because he long ago lost his ability to reason.

The sisters, Djamilla and Nadia Moussaoui, often stared vacantly into the camera. They showed little emotion about the younger brother they have not seen in more than a decade.

Their father, Omar Moussaoui, was an alcoholic who routinely beat their mother, Aicha. What little money the family had he drank away in the "cafes" in southern France, where he had moved his family from Morocco.

The mother and children often were left to starve. A rare dinner of potatoes or sardines was considered a feast.

The parents' first son died of dehydration at 6 months of age. Their second son, just a week old, died after a botched circumcision.

Then came the two sisters: Djamilla was hit in the head by a glass thrown by her father and later attempted suicide. Nadia, who wanted to learn to dance, tried to escape by moving to Paris. But she could not shake the demons of her childhood.

"As an infant he hit me like an adult," Djamilla said. "He made holes in my head."

But young Zacarias, she said, "was the little sweetheart of the family." They all hoped he would overcome his infancy spent in orphanages and his formative years fearful of his father and distrusting a mother who would not protect him.

"I am in another reality," Djamilla said of her own psychoses. "I can't find myself. I'm in another place. The doctors tell me I will never be cured."

Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested three weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks while taking flying lessons in Minnesota. Last year he pleaded guilty to capital murder, and the jury now must decide - possibly by the middle of this week - whether he will be sentenced to life behind bars or death.

Twice in his sentencing trial he has testified to the jury, expressing his glee at the nearly 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11. He also has boasted that he was to fly a fifth plane that day into the White House.

That kind of bizarre behavior, his defense lawyers said, is indicative of a man who is mad. To emphasize that conclusion, the lawyers called to the witness stand two mental health experts who have examined Moussaoui or interviewed scores of his relatives and friends.

Xavier Amador, a clinical psychologist, diagnosed him as schizophrenic, with "paranoid" tendencies. He said three other mental health experts agreed and two others found Moussaoui "most likely" had "delusions and a schizophrenic thought disorder."

Jan Vogelsang, a clinical social worker, said Moussaoui was the product of his broken home.

"I'm going back three and four generations of this family," she said. "I heard stories after stories after stories of mental illness and starvation. The pattern is there."

Several friends from Moussaoui's teenage years, testifying both live in the courtroom and via video recordings, recalled warm memories of Moussaoui. Despite his harsh upbringing, they said, he was very ambitious and hoped to make a career in international business.

But they said he often was humiliated by racial prejudice. He broke up with a girlfriend of six years and moved to London. His plan was to start over and someday work his way into the export/import business. Indeed, he did earn a master's degree in business.

But fellow students in London said he was dealt several setbacks and finally came under the grip of radical Muslims hanging around a local mosque.

The mosque's imam, Abdul Haqq Baker, said a group of radicals was always outside, passing out leaflets and trying to recruit young drifters. Baker said much of their rhetoric was vitriol against America and Israel.

Moussaoui soon began espousing their beliefs. He grew a beard and shaved his head. He came to the mosque in military clothing, complete with rucksack and boots. He talked about taking up arms for Islam.

"He kept asking me impatiently, `Where is the jihad in the world? Where is it?'" Baker said.

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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