German Court convicts 9/11 terror suspect who helped Mohammed Atta
August 19, 2005
Germany Court Convicts Terror Suspect
AP Photo HPR104
By CLAUS-PETER TIEMANN
Associated Press Writer
HAMBURG, Germany (AP) - A Moroccan man accused of helping the Sept. 11 hijackers was convicted Friday of membership in a terrorist organization but was acquitted of direct involvement in the attacks on the United States.
After a yearlong retrial, the Hamburg state court sentenced Mounir el Motassadeq to seven years in prison for membership in the al-Qaida cell that included suicide pilots Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah.
However, it acquitted him of more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder, ruling the evidence did not show the 31-year-old was specifically involved in the Sept. 11 plot.
El Motassadeq, a slight, bearded man, watched calmly as presiding Judge Ernst-Rainer Schudt announced the verdict. The judge also criticized U.S. authorities' failure to give more evidence in the case.
Schudt said el Motassadeq became part of the Hamburg cell in 1999, before its leading members traveled to Afghanistan and were recruited for the al-Qaida attacks on the U.S.
The court found "indications that el Motassadeq was not initiated in all the details," Schudt said. "Our impression is that the defendant is too soft for such a task."
The 31-year-old el Motassadeq in 2003 became the first person in the world to be convicted in connection with the attacks.
Prosecutors had demanded conviction on all charges and the maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. El Motassadeq was accused of helping pay tuition and other bills for cell members to allow them to live as students while they plotted the attacks.
But defense lawyers sought acquittal for the Moroccan, who acknowledges he was close to the hijackers but insists he knew nothing of their plans. They criticized the lack of direct testimony from witnesses, including Ramzi Binalshibh, a key Sept. 11 suspect held by the United States.
El Motassadeq was convicted in 2003 on all the charges and given the maximum sentence.
But a federal appeals court last year overturned the conviction, ruling that he was unfairly denied testimony from al-Qaida suspects in U.S. custody. El Motassadeq was freed shortly afterward.
Defense lawyer Ladislav Anisic told reporters he planned to appeal the new verdict, which he described as "a semi-acquittal."
Schudt ordered el Motassadeq taken into custody as Friday's session ended, and two police officers stood by the defendant as reporters left the courtroom.
At the retrial, which opened last August, the U.S. Justice Department provided summaries from the interrogation of Binalshibh and other suspects, but it did not make the full reports available to the court or allowed the captives to appear in person.
"How are we supposed to do justice to our task when important documents are withheld from us?" Schudt asked after Friday's verdict.
According to the statements, Binalshibh - believed to have been the Hamburg cell's liaison with al-Qaida - said that he and the three suicide pilots alone comprised the cell. Prosecutors have argued that he lied to protect the defendant.
"This material on its own had no value as evidence," Schudt said, citing concerns over how the statements may have been obtained. Defense lawyers have argued that they may have been obtained using torture - making them unusable by a German court.
El Motassadeq is one of two people to have been charged in Germany over the attacks.
The other, el Motassadeq's friend and fellow Moroccan Abdelghani Mzoudi, was tried on identical charges. However, he was acquitted for lack of evidence last year by another panel of Hamburg judges.
Germany's top security official welcomed el Motassadeq's conviction and said he was confident that it would survive an appeal.
"With this verdict, a clear signal has been sent of the determination of the state in the fight against terrorism," Interior Minister Otto Schily said in a statement.
The only person charged in the U.S. with involvement in the attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui, pleaded guilty in April