German Terror Trial Motassadeq Guilty on 246 Counts of Abetting Murder

Germany's highest appellate court on Thursday overruled a previous verdict against Hamburg terror cell suspect Mounir el Motassadeq. New charges were added to his conviction: 246 counts of abetting murder. Motassadeq now faces a stiff sentence.
Von Mary Wiltenburg und Daryl Lindsey

The small courtroom was just two-thirds full when the verdict was handed down by Chief Justice Klaus Tolksdorf on Thursday. The entire chamber stood up to listen to a ruling that took Tolksdorf just seven minutes to read. But it wasn't what people had been expecting.

The Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe, Germany's highest appellate court, reaffirmed a lower-court ruling that Mounir el Motassadeq, a Moroccan man linked to the Hamburg-based 9/11 terror cell, had been a member of a terrorist organization. But Tolksdorf also expanded the conviction to include accessory to murder charges for each of the passengers killed in the planes hi-jacked on Sept. 11, 2001. He said it had been wrong of a Hamburg lower court to acquit him on those charges.

"The defendant is guilty not only of membership in a terrorist organization, but also as an accessory to murder of the 246 passengers and crew members of the crashed aircraft," the court's ruling stated.

Tolksdorf said the evidence showed that Motassadeq knew the terrorists were planning to hijack planes for the attacks and that it didn't matter if he knew the exact targets or timing of the attacks. Tolksdorf ordered that the case be sent back to Hamburg's higher regional court, but work would be limited to determining the appropriate sentence -- and no additional evidence can be collected. He said the court could also take into consideration the total of 3,066 deaths resulting from the attacks on New York and Washington when determining Motassadeq's sentence. The evidence, he said, proved that Motassadeq had helped to conceal the true intentions of the terrorists by transferring money for the men and paying their school tuition and rents.

An lawyer representing the victim's families applauded Thursday's ruling. "He's guilty of being a murderer and that's fantastic," attorney Sven Leistikow told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "That's good for the victim's families and it's nearer to the truth than the last decision." But he also lamented the fact that no justice would be served for the thousands who died in the World Trade Center.

Motassadeq's defense lawyers, meanwhile, expressed regret over the ruling. "I am very disappointed," lawyer Udo Jacob told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The basis of the sentence is wrong. I know him, I know this isn't right."

Controversial testimony

Motassadeq, who was first tried in 2003, was a close friend of Mohammed Atta, the ring-leader of the Hamburg terror cell that carried out the plot. A Hamburg court convicted the now 32-year-old on charges of membership in the terror cell and being an accessory to murder and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. But the case was overturned by the Federal Court of Justice because United States authorities refused to release classified transcripts of interrogations of suspected 9/11 accomplices Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that could have provided exculpatory statements about Motassadeq. Washington refused to permit either to testify in earlier cases.

However, during Motassadeq's 2005 retrial, US officials did release summaries of statements given by the terror suspects. Ultimately, the court ruled that Motassadeq was likely ignorant of "the dimensions of the attack" and found him guilty of membership in the terror cell but not of abetting murder.

The final remaining recourse for Motassadeq is an appeal at Germany's Federal Constitutional Court, but his lawyers said they had made no decision on whether to make that move. "The witnesses we need are hidden in America's basement," defense attorney Jacob said, referring to Binalshibh and Mohammed, who were recently transferred to the Guantanamo Bay military prison facility for terror suspects. "Maybe we will have a chance one day to question them. But for now, this is very bad."

Motassadeq has been free during his appeals process, but prosecutors said they may request that he be put into custody again until he is sentenced.

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