Sept 11 Helper Gets 15 Years Motassadeq to Appeal as Judge Gives Maximum Sentence

A German court has sentenced Moroccan student Mounir al-Motassadeq to 15 years in prison for helping the September 11 suicide pilots plan their attack. The final day of the trial turned into an emotional courtroom battle worthy of Hollywood. The saga may not be over as his legal team plans to appeal.

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Mounir al-Motassadeq was sentenced to 15 years on Monday. He's already served three and a half.
AP

Mounir al-Motassadeq was sentenced to 15 years on Monday. He's already served three and a half.

It almost seemed as though Carsten Beckmann, the judge in charge of sentencing the convicted Sept. 11 accomplice Mounir al-Motassadeq on Monday evening, was presiding over nothing more sensational than a traffic violation case. It was late in the day -- 7:23 p.m. to be exact -- before he got around to reading his verdict, but the preceding 10 hours of pleas and testimony had left him unruffled. "So," he began laconically. "What I have to say won't really come as much of a surprise."

And he was right. Speaking for the three-judge panel of the Hamburg state court, Beckmann sentenced Motassadeq to 15 years in prison for aiding and abetting the murder of the 246 airline passengers who died when their jets were hijacked and crashed during the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States. It was the maximum sentence allowed by German law and it was the sentence most observers had expected.

He said Motassadeq was a member of the Hamburg terror cell from which 3 of the 19 Sept. 11 suicide pilots came. The Moroccan student had been convicted in November for knowingly helping the hijackers. It was found that he had covered up their flight training and had wired them money as they prepared for the attack in the United States. The trial that ended Monday was merely to determine how much time the Moroccan would spend behind bars.

"Taking the lives of 246 people or helping in the same has earned a stiff punishment," Beckmann said has he announced the sentence.

Dramatic legal battle

The sentencing hearing was a quick one. Beckmann had said on Monday that he was interested in a quick trial, and he stuck to his schedule. He quickly dismissed a number of motions by Motassadeq's defense attorney, most of them apparently brought to slow the trial down. As the afternoon turned to evening, he warned his security personnel that they would have to work overtime. Under no circumstances, it seemed, did he want to postpone the verdict.

Nevertheless, the trial was nothing short of a dramatic legal battle. All morning, it looked as though the menu of delay tactics available to the defense was inexhaustible. Defense attorney Udo Jacob questioned the make-up of the court. He faxed a rush plea to Germany's Federal Constitutional Court to stop the hearing pending a decision on an appeal filed last month. He questioned the court's impartiality because it kept overruling his motions. But in the end, nothing worked; testimony finally began at 4:00 p.m.

Act II proved to be an emotional tit-for-tat that even Hollywood would have had trouble matching. A tearful Dominic Puopolo, an American whose mother was sitting in seat 3J on the plane Mohammad Atta flew into the World Trade Center, pleaded for the highest possible penalty.

"You have a chance to rebuild your life and be back with your family (after serving out his sentence). Others don't," Puopolo said in a statement meant for Motassadeq. "Your life is not over, but my mom's is." He said he wanted justice rather than revenge.

"My future is ruined"

Puopolo has been following the trial against Motassadeq for years and struggled to stifle tears as he spoke. He described in detail how the Sept. 11 attacks destroyed his family. "We still suffer from the events of that day and will do so for many years to come," he said. "And this man is responsible, even if he was only indirectly involved in the planning."

Motassadeq, for his part, addressed Puopolo directly for the first time. "Mr. Puopolo, I understand your suffering," he stammered, his voice nearly breaking. "The same thing is being done to me, my kids, my parents, my family. My future is ruined." He then attacked prosecutor Walter Hemberger. The prosecutor, Motassadeq said, had twisted the facts and was never really interested in the truth. "For you," Motassadeq said raising his voice, "it was a game, and now you have won."

He insisted that he was innocent and was adamant that he had neither been in a position of leadership within the Hamburg cell nor did he assist Atta and two other suicide pilots Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah, all of whom lived and studied in Hamburg. He did nothing, he said, that was out of the ordinary and had not known what his friends were planning to do. He insisted that, appearances notwithstanding, he had never "belonged to any group." He then broke off.

Appeal again?

Despite the verdict and the sentence -- and the five-year odyssey the Moroccan has already made through the German courts -- it is unlikely that the Motassadeq case is closed for good. Immediately following the trial, defense attorney Jacob said he would appeal. A further appeal, arguing that the court did not properly deal with evidence that other terror suspects might have provided, is pending in Germany's high court. Both appeals could conceivably lead to a new trial -- which would be Motassadeq's third.

The defense team is also pursuing other options. "Our client told us once again today that he is innocent," said defense attorney Ladislav Anisic on Monday. "We have a clear mandate and that is to ensure that our client receives the acquittal."

The defense is considering a motion to throw out the verdict completely on the grounds that there are new witnesses who weren't previously accessible. Anisic also raised the possibility of an appeal to the European Court of Justice.

Even if the verdict holds up, the trial remains a strange conclusion to one of the only major trials to result from the Sept. 11 attacks. Much points to Motassadeq's involvement, but there is little in the way of conclusive proof. Fellow Moroccan Abdelghani Mzoudi was prosecuted on almost the exact same evidence as Motassadeq -- and was set free by a German court. The doubts will likely never disappear completely.

Judge Beckmann, though, didn't let any of these potential pitfalls ruin his mood. He bade farewell to those gathered in the courtroom in the same laconic tone with which he handed down the verdict. "I don't know if we will see each other again in the context of an appeal," he said. But "for now" it has come to an end.

For now.

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