IMAGE: Mounir El Motassadeq retrial
Pool via Getty Images
Convicted accessory to murder Mounir el Motassadeq, left, stands with his team of lawyers at the start of his third retrial on Friday in Hamburg, Germany.
updated 1/5/2007 2:57:35 PM ET 2007-01-05T19:57:35

A Moroccan convicted as an accessory to murder in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks vehemently declared his innocence as a court opened his sentencing hearing Friday.

Mounir el Motassadeq, a friend of three of the suicide pilots, could receive up to 15 years in prison in the latest chapter of the tangled, five-year legal saga.

In November, a federal appeals court ruled that judges in Hamburg had wrongly acquitted el Motassadeq in 2005 of direct involvement in the attacks, even as they sentenced him to seven years in prison for belonging to a terrorist group.

The appeals court convicted el Motassadeq as an accessory to the murder of 246 passengers and crew members aboard all four jetliners used in the attacks, and ordered the Hamburg state court to set a new sentence.

El Motassadeq, 32, a slight man with a long beard who has always maintained he knew nothing of the hijackers’ plans, appeared relaxed for much of Friday’s session, but became agitated when presiding Judge Carsten Beckmann asked if he wanted to make a statement.

“Can anyone in this room swear by God that what is in this verdict is the truth about me?” he asked.

Appeal is in limbo
“I swear by God that I did know the attackers were in America,” he shouted in accented German. “I swear by God that I did not know what they wanted to do.”

Defense attorney Ladislav Anisic called for the proceedings to be stopped and his client released on procedural grounds, citing constitutional concerns over the way the panel hearing the case was selected.

His colleague, Udo Jacob, argued that the hearings should at least be halted pending a decision by the Federal Constitutional Court on an appeal filed last month against el Motassadeq’s stiffened conviction. It is unclear when that court, Germany’s highest, might consider the case.

Judge Carsten Beckmann adjourned the hearing until Monday without ruling on either request.

The court has scheduled sessions through Feb. 5, but Beckmann said that, depending how his three-judge panel rules on the defense requests, both sides could make their sentencing arguments Monday — and the court could deliver a verdict then.

Prosecutor Walter Hemberger said before Friday’s hearing that his sentence “will certainly be toward the upper end” of what is possible.

Andreas Schulz, an attorney for families of Sept. 11 victims, said he places “a great deal of value on el Motassadeq getting the maximum sentence.”

Close friend of lead hijackers
El Motassadeq was a close friend of pilots Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah when they lived and studied in Hamburg. He has acknowledged training at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan and that he was close to the three hijackers, but insists he knew nothing of their plans.

However, the federal appeals court said evidence showed el Motassadeq knew that the hijackers planned to hijack and crash planes. It found that his actions — for example, transferring money, and helping the hijackers keep up the appearance of being regular university students by paying tuition and rent fees — facilitated the attacks.

The federal court also said it was irrelevant to el Motassadeq’s guilt whether he knew of the plot’s timing, dimension or targets.

The sentencing hearings mark the third time that the Hamburg court has considered el Motassadeq’s case. But it may not be the end of the saga that started with his arrest in November 2001 and has featured two full trials.

El Motassadeq was convicted and sentenced to the maximum 15 years in prison in 2003, but that verdict was overturned by a federal court the following year — largely because of lack of evidence from al-Qaida suspects in U.S. custody.

At a retrial that resulted in the 2005 conviction, the U.S. provided limited summaries from the interrogation of, among others, Ramzi Binalshibh, a suspected liaison between the Hamburg hijackers and al-Qaida.

Jacob on Friday insisted that judges had been wrong to dismiss a statement from Binalshibh supporting el Motassadeq’s insistence that he knew nothing of the terror cell’s plans. The judges had questioned both its credibility and its value as evidence.

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