- The Washington Times - Friday, July 26, 2002

Zacarias Moussaoui yesterday started to plead guilty to charges that he was a conspirator in the September 11 suicide hijackings, only to withdraw his plea a mere 10 minutes later.

"You want to link me to certain facts that will guarantee my death," Moussaoui, who is acting as his own attorney, told U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema. The judge had opened the plea hearing by ruling to accept a guilty plea from Moussaoui if he successfully entered it.

Moussaoui, 34, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, quoted William Shakespeare before saying he no longer wanted to plead guilty and instead wanted carry on to trial on six counts of conspiracy in the September 11 terror attacks.

"There was once somebody who said: 'To be or not to be. That is the question.'" he told Judge Brinkema. "Today the question is to plead guilty or not to plead guilty.

"Under my obligation to my creator, Allah, to save and defend my life, I withdraw my guilty plea," Moussaoui said.

His trial is set to begin Sept. 30 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. Prosecutors say Moussaoui conspired with al Qaeda in the attacks that killed more than 3,000 people. They say Moussaoui would have been the "20th hijacker" had he not been arrested on immigration charges in August.

At the start of yesterday's hearing, Moussaoui said he wanted to plead guilty so he could explain to a sentencing jury his belief that undercover FBI agents had participated in the attacks one even riding on a hijacked airplane.

Moussaoui was trying to plead guilty to four out of the six conspiracy charges against him. All four counts, including one count of "conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction," carry the death penalty.

Judge Brinkema at first ruled she would accept the plea yesterday, but only after Moussaoui answered a series of questions to eliminate any doubt that he might have been trying to manipulate the court.

The two were midway through the question-and-answer session when the judge asked Moussaoui if he was guilty of the second charge of "conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy."

The judge specifically asked Moussaoui whether he had ever "agreed to join members of al Qaeda to seize" a commercial aircraft during midflight.

"I am pleading guilty, but it does not put me on the plane," responded Moussaoui.

"They allege I provided a guest house [for al Qaeda members], I accept," he said. "If they allege provide training, it is possible for me to accept," he said. "I plead guilty to what is in the indictment, but it still doesn't put me on the plane."

The judge said that meant Moussaoui was not truly pleading guilty because he refused to admit full guilt for the charge as it was written in the indictment.

Moussaoui responded by saying he suddenly needed a 10-minute recess, which the judge granted. When he returned to the courtroom, Moussaoui had changed his mind about pleading guilty.

Judge Brinkema told Moussaoui he was making a wise decision.

"There has been no guilty plea in this case," she said. "It is clear that you are not admitting the essence of the specific elements of the conspiracy charges."

One of Moussaoui's public defenders this week filed motions asking Judge Brinkema to delay yesterday's plea hearing on grounds Moussaoui is mentally ill and cannot represent himself.

The judge ruled, however, that there had been no "new evidence" supporting claims that Moussaoui is not mentally competent to proceed as his own attorney.

Moussaoui's mother, Aicha Al-Wafi, appeared relieved when she spoke to reporters outside the courthouse yesterday. In French, she said her son "cannot really think rationally."

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