Student Convicted in U.S. Attacks

HAMBURG, Germany -- A Moroccan student was convicted Wednesday of more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder in the Sept. 11 attacks and sentenced to the maximum 15 years in prison, concluding the first trial anywhere of a suspect in the attacks on the United States.

The Hamburg state court found Mounir el Motassadeq, 28, guilty of membership in a terrorist organization for organizing logistics for the Hamburg-based al-Qaida cell that included lead hijacker Mohamed Atta and two other suicide pilots.

The verdict was hailed as a victory in the fight against international terrorism by Germany's top law enforcement official as well as lawyers representing American victims.

"This is a success in the fight against international terrorism," Interior Minister Otto Schily said. "It is a warning to all those who think they can toy with the idea of aligning themselves with terrorist networks."

El Motassadeq denied the charges during his three-month trial. But Presiding Judge Albrecht Mentz sided with prosecutors' argument that a mosaic of evidence proved the defendant was "a cog that kept the machinery going."

"The accused belonged to this group since its inception," Mentz said in reading the verdict. "He knew and approved the key elements of the planned attacks."

In addition to 3,045 counts of accessory to murder, he was convicted of five counts of being an accessory to attempted murder and bodily injury -- charges introduced so survivors of the attacks, including a Naval officer at the Pentagon, could join the trial as co-plaintiffs.

The defense had demanded acquittal, arguing the evidence was circumstantial, and said it would appeal.

While suspects in the plot detained in the United States face a possible death sentence if convicted, El Motassadeq's 15-year sentence will translate into a minimum of 10 years under German law.

Schily called the penalty "very harsh," a judgment shared by a lawyer representing many of the more than 20 American family members and survivors who joined the prosecution in an effort to secure the maximum sentence.

"They wanted justice and they got justice," lawyer Ulrich von Jeinsen said. "They accept that we have another system and since he got the maximum sentence they will be satisfied."

Presiding Judge Mentz said moving testimony by family members helped persuade the five-judge panel to deliver the maximum sentence -- which might have otherwise been difficult for the court, which also considered that El Motassadeq is the father of two young children.

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 Ramzi Binalshibh, Said Bahaji and Zakariya Essabar. But he testified he knew nothing of their plans.

A slight, bearded man, El Motassadeq sat between his lawyers and showed no emotion as the verdict was read out.

He then listened attentively as the judge gave his explanation.

Prosecutors argued that 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. They also pointed to the fact that he signed Atta's will.

Also, witnesses testified that El Motassadeq was as radical as the rest of the group, talking of jihad -- holy war -- and his hatred of Israel and the United States.

El Motassadeq, who was raised in a middle-class family, came to Germany as a student in 1993 and married a Russian woman. By 1995, he was studying electrical engineering in Hamburg, where he is believed to have first met Atta no later than the following year.

He denied for nearly a year after his arrest ever having been to Afghanistan.

But on the first day of the trial, El Motassadeq admitted training in one of Osama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan in 2000.

He said he took weapons training in Afghanistan because he believed all Muslims should learn to shoot.

As for providing logistical support, he said he was simply helping friends by handling al-Shehhi's account.