Mounir El Motassadeq, Udo Jacob
Fabian Bimmer  /  AP
Mounir El Motassadeq, left, and his lawyer Udo Jacob, right, are pictured Monday before the trial at a court in Hamburg, northern Germany.
updated 1/8/2007 6:42:33 PM ET 2007-01-08T23:42:33

A Moroccan convicted as an accessory to murder in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was sentenced Monday to the maximum 15 years in prison, minutes after telling the son of a woman killed that day “my future is ruined.”

A federal appeals court convicted Mounir el Motassadeq, a friend of three of the suicide pilots, in November of knowingly helping the hijackers and sent the case to a state court in Hamburg for sentencing.

Just before Monday’s verdict, the 32-year-old defendant spoke with an American whose mother died on board one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center.

Dominic Puopolo Jr., a co-plaintiff in the case, earlier joined prosecutors in calling for the maximum penalty, urging the judges to consider the “human and emotional cost” of the 2001 attacks.

“Anyone who helped in this has earned stiff punishment,” presiding Judge Carsten Beckmann said after announcing Monday’s verdict.

When the court granted El Motassadeq a final chance to speak, the slightly built, bearded man turned to Puopolo to say, “I understand your suffering. ... The same thing is being done to me, my kids, my parents, my family — my future is ruined.”

Puopolo said he forgave el Motassadeq, and reminded him that he would one day be freed.

“You have a chance to rebuild your life and be back with your family. Others don’t,” Puopolo said. “Your life is not over, but my mom’s is.”

Defense lawyers said they may appeal to a European court.

The federal appeals court had ruled that the Hamburg judges wrongly acquitted el Motassadeq in 2005 of direct involvement in the attacks, even though 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 the 246 passengers and crew members aboard the four jetliners used in the attacks, and ordered the state court to set a new sentence.

Ladislav Anisic, a lawyer for el Motassadeq, said they would seek a retrial and maybe appeal to the European Court of Justice.

“We have a clear mandate, and that is to ensure that our client receives the acquittal,” he said.

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.

Court alleges previous knowledge
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.

Monday’s decision was the latest in a legal saga that started with el Motassadeq’s arrest in November 2001 and featured two full trials.

He 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.

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