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15 years 911 conspirator

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15 years for 9/11 conspirator

HAMBURG, Germany --A German court has jailed a Moroccan man for 15 years after convicting him of aiding the September 11 suicide hijackers in the first trial anywhere of a suspected attack conspirator.

Mounir Motassadeq, a 28-year-old electrical engineering student, was found guilty of being an accessory to more than 3,000 murders in New York and Washington and being a member of a terrorist organisation.

CNN's Matthew Chance said the 15-year sentence is the maximum the court could impose under German law for being an accomplice to murder -- even if those murdered are numbered in the thousands.

Much of the evidence against Motassadeq was circumstantial, and he was convicted by association with other al Qaeda members and not by direct evidence, Chance said.

In addition to the 3,000-plus counts of accessory to murder, he was convicted of five counts of attempted murder and bodily injury.

Prosecutors alleged he provided logistical support for the Hamburg al Qaeda cell that included lead hijacker Mohamed Atta, who piloted one of the two airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center.

Police blocked off the street in front of the Hamburg courthouse on Wednesday morning as dozens of journalists queued for tight security screening to enter the building.

Motassadeq consistently denied the charges during his 3 1/2-month trial and his lawyers were seeking an acquittal from the five-judge panel.

But Judge Albrecht Mentz sided with prosecutors' argument that a complex mosaic of evidence proved the defendant was "a cog that kept the machinery going."

"The accused belonged to this group since its inception," Mentz said in reading the verdict. "He knew and approved the key elements of the planned attacks."

German Interior Minister Otto Schily called the verdict a success in the fight against terrorism but questioned whether it would serve as a deterrent.

"It is a warning to all those who may think about becoming involved with a terrorist network," Schily said, adding that "people who are willing to destroy their own lives are hard to deter."

Stephen Push, whose wife Lisa died in the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon, welcomed the verdict.

"This is a wise decision," Push told Reuters. "I'm only sorry he couldn't get a longer sentence because

someone who is committed to al Qaeda is a very dangerous person who needs to be kept away from society."

During the trial the defendant acknowledged he knew the six other alleged members of the Hamburg cell -- Atta plus two other pilots of the airliners, Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi; and logisticians Ramzi Binalshibh, Said Bahaji and Zakariya Essabar.

Of Atta, the Moroccan told CNN shortly before his arrest in the fall of 2001: "We visited each other, talked like normal friends."

But he said he knew nothing of the plans for September 11, 2001.

"I couldn't believe that people I knew could do something like that," Motassadeq said in his closing statement last week.

"I watched it on television and I was shocked ... I can only hope that something like September 11 never happens again."

But witnesses testified that Motassadeq -- who showed no emotion as the verdict was read out and listened attentively as the judge gave his explanation -- was as radical as the rest of the group, talking of jihad (holy war) and his hatred of Israel and the United States.

The defendant, a slight, bearded man, admitted training in a camp run by Osama bin Laden -- the al Qaeda chief alleged by the U.S. to be the mastermind of the September 11 attacks -- in Afghanistan in 2000.

Prosecutors alleged Motassadeq used his power of attorney over al-Shehhi's bank account to pay rent, tuition and utility bills, allowing the plotters to keep up the appearance of being normal students in Germany.

Motassadeq argued he was simply providing an innocent service to friends and that he took weapons training in Afghanistan because he believed all Muslims should learn to shoot.

The defence tried several times unsuccessfully to obtain testimony by two of Motassadeq's friends, Binalshibh and Mohammed Haydar Zammar -- a lack of evidence that lawyers have said could be grounds for an appeal.

Binalshibh, a Yemeni suspect in U.S. custody, is believed to have been the Hamburg cell's key contact with al Qaeda. Zammar, an alleged al Qaeda recruiter in Hamburg, is in prison in Syria.

The court failed to get the men released to testify, and German authorities refused to turn over their files on the two, saying transcripts of their interrogations were provided to them on condition they only be used for intelligence purposes.

Motassadeq, a member of a middle-class family, came to Germany in 1993 to study. By 1995, he was studying electrical engineering in Hamburg, where he is believed to have first met Atta no later than the following year. (Profile)

Push, who under German law joined as a co-plaintiff in the case against Motassadeq, told CNN: "One of the most disturbing things about the case was the discovery that the German authorities knew much about this al Qaeda cell years prior to the September 11 attack.

"Just like the authorities in the United States -- the FBI and CIA -- they were aware of some of these individuals, have been tracking them and yet were not able to connect the dots, were not able to use that information to prevent the attacks."

-- CNN Berlin Bureau Chief Stephanie Halasz contributed to this report


Copyright 2003 CNN. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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