- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

HAMBURG, Germany, Feb. 19 (UPI) — The first man to stand trial for his alleged role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was sentenced Wednesday to 15 years in prison in Hamburg.

Mounir el Motassadeq, 28, was charged with aiding the Hamburg terror cell led by suicide hijacker Mohammed Atta, but maintained he did not know the group was planning to attack the World Trade Center in New York or the Pentagon outside Washington. A fourth hijacked commercial jet crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside, its target unknown.

The engineering student, a native of Morocco, faced two specific charges: accessory to more than 3,000 murders, with a maximum of 25 years in prison; and membership in a terrorist organization, which carried 10 years. He also faced the possibility of being found guilty of a lesser charge, support of a terrorist organization, which carried 5 years.

His defense counsel had wanted his acquittal and said it will lodge an appeal.

The manager of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's party said the sentence was proof the Germany's judicial system worked: "The verdict is clear. The rule of law is strong," said Olaf Scholz.

Speaking in Berlin, the Social Democrat party official said the conviction was an important signal especially to the families, friends and colleagues of the Sept. 11 victims.

"Everything had been done to ensure that the attacks have been resolved quickly," he added.

The north German city was in a state of heightened alert in case extremists launched a retaliatory attack on the court building or staged protests. Police marksmen were deployed on rooftops near the courthouse and streets in the direct vicinity cordoned off to the public. Journalists were subjected to a five-hour process of security clearance and body searches before being admitted to the courtroom.

Motassadeq had admitted to the panel of four judges that he attended an al Qaida training camp in Afghanistan in May 2000 — the same time as other key members of the Hamburg terror cell, including Atta, Marwan Alshehhi and Ziad Jarrah. All allegedly piloted flights on Sept. 11, 2001.

His trial opened on Oct. 22, 2002, with Motassadeq looking cool and collected in a gray sweater and slacks. He testified in near-perfect German that his Afghanistan training began with Kalashnikov automatic rifle practice and would have progressed to map reading and explosives training. He said he went because he believed all Muslims should train with guns but that he left after less than a month because his wife in Germany was pregnant.

Atta and Alshehhi went on to Venice, Fla., for flight school in December 2000. U.S. investigators believe the two were at the controls of the hijacked airplanes that flew into the two towers of the World Trade Center.

Motassadeq insisted to presiding Judge Albrecht Mentz and colleagues that he simply befriended fellow Muslims in the northern German city. He kept track of a bank account that prosecutors said was the group's channel of income from al Qaida.

The father of two was arrested in Hamburg on Nov. 28, 2001, and held in solitary confinement in a federal prison in central Germany. Just before his trial started, he was transferred back to Hamburg to a special high-security cell with underground access to the courtroom.

The main focus of the prosecution's case was Motassadeq's close friendship with Atta, Alshehhi, Jarrah and three other alleged plotters, his financial transfers — paying bills such as rent and student tuition — on behalf of Alshehhi, and his paramilitary training at the al Qaida camp.

Witnesses for the prosecution testified that Motassadeq spoke vigorously of his hatred of the United States and Israel and extolled jihad, the Muslim concept of "holy struggle" that has taken on a militant meaning for Islamic extremists.

Defense countered that such testimony did not prove Motassadeq's knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot. His lawyers tried repeatedly to obtain the testimony, in person or by affidavit, of two friends of the defendant who they argued could reveal the extent of his involvement. The court was unable to secure the temporary release of Ramzi Binalshibh and Mohammed Haydar Zammar to testify and German investigators refused to hand over interview material on grounds of intelligence.

Binalshibh is in U.S. custody and Zammar is in prison in Syria. Both men are suspected of strong links to al Qaida.

Legal experts said the blocking of Binalshibh and Zammar as defense witnesses may prove to be grounds for appeal. For the moment at least, however, Wednesday's verdict is seen as a landmark case in Germany.

At present, German Public Prosecutor Kay Nehm is investigating allegations against 100 alleged Islamic extremists, and another al Qaida suspect from the Hamburg terror cell is scheduled for trial later this year. Like Motassedeq, Abdelghani Mzoudi — a native of Morocco arrested by German police last October — was also charged with providing logistical support to Atta and his Hamburg group.

At a time when diplomatic ties between Washington and Berlin are strained over the prospect of a U.S.-led war on Iraq, the German government had been particularly careful to cooperate fully with U.S. efforts against terrorism.

Last September, shortly before German voters re-elected Schroeder and his anti-Iraq ticket, Germany's then-Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin criticized the American justice system. She was forced to resign for controversial remarks made at an election rally that German reports claimed compared President George W. Bush with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, an allegation she denied.


(Nigel Tandy contributed to this report from Bonn, Germany.)

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