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In Germany, 9-11 accomplice declares his innocence

HAMBURG, Germany—The last local member of the infamous Hamburg sleeper cell that planned and carried out the Sept. 11 terror attacks, broke four years of silence Friday to scream out his innocence when he appeared before a German court for sentencing.

Mounir el Motassadeq, a 32-year-old former engineering student from Morocco, laughed as he settled down behind the bullet-proof glass of a Hamburg court.

He was in a familiar setting. This was his third time appearing before a Hamburg court to be sentenced for crimes related to the Sept. 11 attacks. Twice, higher courts had thrown out those sentences—at issue a U.S. refusal to allow terror suspects to appear as witnesses he said would exonerate him.

In November, German prosecutors narrowed the charges against him, focusing on the 246 people who died in the jet crashes rather than the almost 3,000 victims of the attacks. Germany's highest appeals court, which tossed out earlier sentences, found him guilty of accessory to murder and of being a member of a terrorist group.

Friday began what most believe is the final round of a five-year long legal battle. Court officials believe the sentence will be pronounced Monday. He faces a maximum 15 years in prison.

Four hours into the proceeding, and after four years of silence in the courtroom, el Motassadeq appeared to break. Noting his microphone's "on" light, he screamed, "I swear before God that I did not know that they were in America. I swear before God that I did not know what they were planning."

He added, "I have a lot to say, but my German is very simple." And while admitting he had been in Afghanistan, he said it was a fantasy to believe he helped plan the attacks, adding, "You don't want to know the truth," before turning off his microphone, and appearing to cry.

His attorneys had been urging the state court to ignore the higher court conviction. Attorney Udo Jacob said the three-judge panel in the court (German courts use panels of judges instead of juries) had been hastily assembled. He also claimed that his client's rights had been violated during the trial, as the United States refused to allow 9-11 conspirator Ramzi Binalshibh to testify. Binalshibh's statements to U.S. officials can be seen to either condemn or vindicate el Motassadeq.

But the prosecution and a court spokesperson agreed such arguments ended in November, when Germany's highest court imposed the guilty verdict and sent him back to Hamburg for sentencing. Judge Sabine Westphalen, who is the court's spokesperson for the case, told a reporter that the defendant had ample opportunity to prove that his was a politically, not factually, motivated prosecution.

"Look, it's true there was enormous international interest in his case, but if there had been a conspiracy to put him away, don't you think we might have done it a bit quicker?" she said.

The case began in the months after the attack. German investigators have shown that el Motassadeq, an engineering student then, spent long nights debating jihad and the evils of the West in a small apartment on Marienstrasse 54, in a Hamburg suburb with a group of intense Middle Easterners that included some of the 9-11 conspirators.

His role in the plot was to witness wills, including that of lead hijacker Mohammed Atta, send money for flight training and take over power of attorney for the deadly hijackers. Those he helped included two who piloted jets into the Twin Towers, and another who flew United flight 93. One member of the cell is still thought to be on the run, in Pakistan. But el Motassadeq is the last in Hamburg.

Still, even now, former neighbors from his quaint cobbled neighborhood recall the father of two as a kind, quiet man.

Eva Fraczkiewicz was a neighbor who remembers chatting with el Motassadeq and how he smiled even when taking out the trash.

"It just shows that we never know what's going on inside someone's head, no matter how much we think do," she said.

She added, however, that she hopes finally seeing el Motassadeq shipped off to prison might stop people from immediately adding the phrase "sleeper cell" to the name Hamburg.

"Being nice doesn't excuse him for helping to kill all those people," she noted. "I do hope he goes away for a long time."

Musician Susanne Gerdts lives a couple doors down from the "sleepers" (as they're known locally) gathering spot. The area, with cobbled streets and buildings that alternate between pre-war, and rebuilt from war-rubble, looks classically German. But she says it has been tainted by the former residents.

"It's time Hamburg's role in these attacks stop being current events, and move into history," she said. "Whenever someone finds out where I live, they say, `You live on the terror street.' When they come down to see me, they ask if there are any more sleepers in the neighborhood. They think we're cursed."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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