Guardian Unlimited
Go to:  
Guardian UnlimitedWorld Latest
Home UK Business Online World dispatch The wrap Weblog Talk Search
The Guardian World News guide Arts Special reports Columnists Audio Help Quiz

Breaking news International


9/11 Suspect Convicted of Aiding Murder

Wednesday February 19, 2003 2:10 PM

HAMBURG, Germany (AP) - A Moroccan student was convicted Wednesday of more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder for helping Mohamed Atta and two other suicide pilots in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, ending the first trial connected to the suicide hijackings.

Mounir el Motassadeq, 28, was sentenced to the maximum 15 years in prison for helping the Hamburg-based al-Qaida terror cell that included Atta, the lead hijacker and two other suicide pilots.

In addition to the 3,045 counts of accessory to murder, he was convicted of five counts of attempted murder and bodily injury.

El Motassadeq denied the charges during his 3-month trial, and his lawyers had demanded acquittal.

El Motassadeq has acknowledged knowing six other alleged members of the Hamburg cell - Atta and two other suicide pilots, Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi; and organizers Ramzi Binalshibh, Said Bahaji and Zakariya Essabar. But he says he knew nothing of their plans.

``I couldn't believe that people I knew could do something like that,'' el Motassadeq said in his closing statement last week. ``I watched it on television and I was shocked ... I can only hope that something like Sept. 11 never happens again.''

But witnesses testified that el Motassadeq, a slight, bearded man, was as radical as the rest of the group, talking of jihad - holy war - and his hatred of Israel and the United States.

The defendant himself admitted he trained in one of Osama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan in 2000.

Prosecutors allege el Motassadeq used his power of attorney over al-Shehhi's bank account to pay rent, tuition and utility bills, allowing the plotters to keep up the appearance of being normal students in Germany.

El Motassadeq argued he was simply providing an innocent service to friends and that he took weapons training in Afghanistan because he believed all Muslims should learn to shoot.

The prospect of el Motassadeq's imprisonment in Germany raised security fears even before the verdict. Terrorists might attempt hijackings or kidnappings to free him, said Bavaria's top security official, Interior Minister Guenter Beckstein.

The Hamburg case, coupled with a possible Iraq war, has led some German authorities to step up surveillance of likely suspects who might be planning attacks, though there is no evidence of any specific threats for now, Beckstein told ZDF television.

Germany's federal anti-crime agency said no nationwide measures were being taken, but the states were free to increase security.

``We gather information regarding the level of danger from national and international sources and pass on anything that is relevant to the state police,'' said Dirk Buechner, spokesman for the Federal Criminal Office.

El Motassadeq's lawyers tried several times unsuccessfully to obtain testimony by two of his friends, Ramzi Binalshibh and Mohammed Haydar Zammar - a lack of evidence that the lawyers say could be grounds for an appeal in case of a guilty verdict.

Binalshibh, a Yemeni suspect in U.S. custody, is believed to have been the Hamburg cell's key contact with al-Qaida. Zammar, an alleged al-Qaida recruiter in Hamburg, is in prison in Syria.

The court could not get the men released to testify and German authorities refused to turn over their files on the two, saying transcripts of their interrogations were provided to them on condition they only be used for intelligence purposes.

Attorneys representing Americans who lost family members on Sept. 11 said they would appeal if el Motassadeq does not receive close to the maximum sentence, The family members are allowed to be co-plaintiffs under German law.

El Motassadeq, the son of a middle-class family, came to Germany in 1993 to study. By 1995, he was studying electrical engineering in Hamburg, where he is believed to have first met Atta no later than the following year.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003