The sentencing of Mounir el Motassadeq to 15 years in prison by a Hamburg court marks the first conviction in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. It's being hailed as a test case for future al Qaeda prosecutions.
Pronounced guilty -- Mounir el Motassadeq
For minutes after the verdict was handed down, Mounir el Motassadeq sat quietly in the courtroom chair he has occupied for more than four months, his face wearing a blank expression as he came to grips with the fact that he will spend the next 14 years of his life in a German prison.
A Hamburg court sentenced the 29-year-old Moroccan student to the maximum 15 years in prison on charges including accessory to murder in 3,045 cases, membership in a terrorist organization, attempted murder and five cases of causing grievous bodily injury.
Evidence incriminating, says Judge
In a decision he read before the court, Chief Judge Albrecht Mentz and six other judges agreed with the federal prosecution's charge that Motassadeq was a committed and active member of Mohammed Atta's Hamburg-based al Qaeda cell of terrorists suspected to be behind the Sep. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
"The accused belonged to the group surrounding Atta from the time it was founded. This group of Arab-Muslim students planned the attacks out of hatred for the United States and Israel," Mentz said.
The judge went on to say that the evidence, "confirmed that he knew of the plan and approved of it."
Decision applauded by German minister
The result is sure to bring satisfaction to U.S. and German officials, who saw the trial as a measure of Germany's seriousness in pursuing and punishing those connected to the Sept. 11 attacks.
German Interior Minister Otto Schily
German Interior Minister Otto Schily said: "I think this marks a success in the international fight against terrorism. It is a harsh sentence, but I think it is justified."
Referring to the wider implications of the verdict, Schily said, "It is a warning to all those who may think about becoming involved with a terrorist network."
The severity of the verdict has also surprised prosecuting attorneys, who had planned on a conviction.
"To get the full 15 years is almost unheard of," said Burkhard Kötke, one of the lawyers representing 21 American co-plaintiffs in the trial. He said the verdict was a positive development in Germany's fight against terrorism.
"The federal prosecutor was given encouragement in this trial and that is very positive," said Kötke, who said there will be additional trials in the coming months.
Defense attorneys were disappointed by the verdict. They had argued that the evidence against Motassadeq was nothing more than circumstantial and asked that their client, who has been in jail for more than a year, be released from custody.
Throughout the trial, Motassadeq and his defense attorneys have tried to show that he was no more than a good friend to the Sept. 11 hijackers, who may have shared their anti-Semitic and anti-American opinions, but not their violent convictions.
Defense lawyers were especially irate that the U.S. prevented Ramzi Binalshibh -- another suspected accomplice who is in American custody -- from testifying in the trial, who they believe would have exonerated Motassadeq.
"Motassadeq was one of Atta's closest friends"
Mentz and the other judges summarily dismissed those attempts. Mentz drew on the testimony given by more than 30 witnesses, some of them former roommates and friends of Motassadeq, who told the court of the 29-year-old electrical engineering students’s gradual radicalization and the group’s evolution into a cell with a "sect-like character."
"At the decisive point in the plot, (Motassadeq) counted as one of Atta’s closest friends," Mentz said, in reading the court’s decision.
Motassadeq’s handling of money transfers and bill payments for group members Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah, described by the defense as favors for friends, were further proof that Motassadeq was a trusted member of the group, said Mentz. So too, was his trip to Afghanistan at a time when his Russian-born wife was pregnant with their first child.
"He was given the assignment to cover the tracks early on because he was trusted," Mentz said. He told Motassadeq that the court would look favorably on his case should he decide to hand in a full admission of guilt within a week.
Verdict "unfair" say Motassadeq's friends
Friends of Motassadeq who have attended almost every day of the more than four-month long trial, called the decision "unfair."
"You could see from the very beginning that it would turn out that way," said Abu Abderrahman, 39. He said it would be received badly, "not just in the Arabic community, but worldwide. People will know that what happened today was unfair."