9/11 Defendant Sentenced on a Lesser Charge
A Moroccan with links to the Sept. 11 hijackers was sentenced Friday to seven years in prison for belonging to a terrorist organization, but a German court found he was not involved in the plot that killed nearly 3,000 people.
The verdict came in the retrial of Mounir Motassadeq, 31, a former Hamburg university student and friend of Mohamed Atta and two other hijackers. In 2003, Motassadeq became the first person convicted in the Sept. 11 attacks. However, the case was overturned by an appeals court that ruled he had been denied access to testimony of alleged Al Qaeda operatives in U.S. custody.
The legal drama strained relations between Washington and the German court system and underscored one of the difficulties of combating terrorism: granting a suspect a fair trial while not divulging intelligence that could jeopardize other investigations.
This dilemma further angered German prosecutors last year when a friend of Motassadeq, Abdelghani Mzoudi, was acquitted of similar charges after the U.S. government refused to turn over information.
The U.S. Justice Department would not provide witnesses who were in its custody but reportedly shared summaries of interrogations of alleged Sept. 11 plot mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and of Ramzi Binalshibh, thought to have been the liaison between Al Qaeda and the hijackers.
The summaries indicated that Motassadeq had been unaware of the plot, but the German court was frustrated by the meager details and evidence it was presented. The court also was troubled that the information may have been procured by torture, which would make it inadmissible under German law.
“How are we supposed to do justice to our task when important documents are withheld from us?” Judge Ernst-Rainer Schudt, presiding over the Hamburg court, said from the bench. “It’s an unsatisfactory situation.”
Motassadeq, the first person convicted as an accessory to the attacks, had been sentenced to 15 years in prison in the 2003 conviction that was overturned. On Friday, he was found guilty of a lesser charge of belonging to a terrorist organization.
In explaining the court’s decision and the shorter sentence, Schudt said that there were “indications Motassadeq was not initiated in all the details [of the attack]. Our impression is that the defendant is too lightweight for such a task.... He was not the same caliber as Atta.”
Motassadeq, a willowy man with a beard, admitted during both his trials that he had attended a training camp for militants in Afghanistan in 2000 and had been friendly with hijackers Ziad Samir Jarrah, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Atta, the group’s leader. Motassadeq signed Atta’s will, had access to Al-Shehhi’s bank account and was frequently in the plotters’ company in and around Hamburg Technical University.
The prosecution argued that Motassadeq oversaw logistics for the hijackers who became known as the Hamburg cell. He was accused of managing Al-Shehhi’s account to pay rent, tuition and utility bills while Atta and the others were in Afghanistan or in flight schools in the United States.
A former roommate once recalled that Motassadeq had told him in 1999 that terrorists would do “something big again. The Jews will die and we will dance on their graves.”
Motassadeq’s lawyer, Ladislav Anisic, said there was no evidence linking his client to the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Let us not let Osama bin Laden win here at home by sacrificing our legal foundations,” Anisic told the court.
After his acquittal, Mzoudi, whom Germany was seeking to deport, returned to his native Morocco this year.