9/11 Associate Is Sentenced in Germany to 15 Years


Published: January 9, 2007

FRANKFURT, Jan. 8 — A German court on Monday sentenced a friend of the Sept. 11 hijackers to 15 years in prison for being an accessory in the murders of 246 people aboard the commercial planes used in the terrorist attacks.

Mounir el Motassadeq before his sentencing at a court in Hamburg, Germany.

The sentencing of the man, a Moroccan named Mounir el-Motassadeq, is a potentially decisive milestone in a complex and politically delicate case that has wended its way through the German courts for five years.

In 2005, the court, in Hamburg, found Mr. Motassadeq, 32, guilty of belonging to a terrorist organization — a lesser crime — and sentenced him to seven years in jail. But last November, an appeals court overturned that ruling, saying he had played a direct role in plotting the hijackings.

“It was a violent crime that was carried out,” the presiding judge of the Hamburg court, Carsten Beckmann, said Monday, explaining the sentence, which was the stiffest possible under the criminal guidelines.

In one way, the 15-year prison term brings the case full circle: after his first trial, in 2003, Mr. Motassadeq was found guilty of 3,066 counts of accessory to murder and sentenced to the same jail term by the Hamburg court. But that verdict was overturned on appeal and he was put on trial a second time.

Mr. Motassadeq, who came to Germany in 1993 to study engineering and fell in with a radical Islamic group in Hamburg that included two of the hijackers, Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, is one of only two people to be convicted in the 9/11 attacks. The other — Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent — is serving a life sentence in Colorado.

German prosecutors struggled to build a case against Mr. Motassadeq, in part because of what they said was a lack of cooperation from the United States in sharing evidence obtained from other terrorism suspects. On Monday, however, the court handed them a clear victory.

Mr. Motassadeq’s lawyer, Udo Jacob, said he planned to appeal, either to the European Court of Human Rights or by demanding a third trial in Hamburg based on new evidence. He has already filed an appeal with the Federal Constitutional Court, the highest German court.

“This ruling was not a surprise,” he said in an interview. “The court had no choice but to give him a tough punishment.”

Witnesses in the courtroom said Mr. Motassadeq reacted impassively as the judge read the sentence. But earlier, when given a chance to address the court, Mr. Motassadeq turned to the son of one of the victims, Dominic J. Puopolo, and delivered an emotional statement.

“I understand your suffering,” Mr. Motassadeq said, according to The Associated Press. “The same thing is being done to me, my kids, my parents, my family; my future is ruined.”

Mr. Puopolo, a 40-year-old computer consultant from Miami Beach, Fla., whose mother was on one of the planes flown into the World Trade Center, replied that Mr. Motassadeq would be free one day.

“You have a chance to rebuild your life and be back with your family,” said Mr. Puopolo, who represented the victims as co-plaintiffs. “Your life is not over, but my mom’s is.”

In a telephone interview later, Mr. Puopolo said the confrontation caught him off guard. More than that, though, he said the outburst showed Mr. Motassadeq’s desperation in the waning moments of his trial. During most of his court appearances, Mr. Motassadeq, a slight man with a long beard, had projected a tranquil, even occasionally cheerful, demeanor.

“This is the end of the road for him,” Mr. Puopolo said. “It’s real justice for the 9/11 families, and for my family.”

Mr. Motassadeq’s links to the hijackers were never in dispute. He was a friend of Mr. Atta and Mr. Shehhi while they lived in Hamburg, and had wired money to Mr. Shehhi. He also admitted to attending a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan sponsored by Osama bin Laden.

But Mr. Motassadeq denied knowing about the impending attacks and said he had helped the hijackers unwittingly. In 2005, the Hamburg court accepted his contention that he played no direct role.

The appeals court, however, ruled that the evidence showed that Mr. Motassadeq was aware of the plot to hijack and crash commercial airlines, even if he did not know the targets of the attacks.

Because there was no proof that he knew about the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he was charged in his second trial with accessory to murder in the deaths of those on the planes, rather than in the deaths of everyone killed.

Mr. Jacob says he can present new evidence from another Moroccan, Abdelghani Mzoudi, who was acquitted of complicity in the 9/11 attacks by a Hamburg court in 2004. Mr. Mzoudi, who was deported from Germany, has offered to testify on behalf of Mr. Motassadeq.

For that to happen, however, the court would have to rule that the evidence is vital enough to warrant yet another trial.