Sept. 11 Suspect on Trial in Germany
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HAMBURG, Germany (AP) _ A Moroccan student accused of aiding the Sept. 11 suicide attackers sought Tuesday to distance himself from suspected lead hijacker Mohamed Atta, describing him as little more than a casual acquaintance from the university they attended.
Mounir el Motassadeq, who is charged with more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder and being a member of a terrorist organization, played down earlier testimony that he often discussed religion and politics with Atta.
The 28-year-old’s testimony in the first trial of a Sept. 11 suspect reflected a defense strategy of acknowledging contacts with most members of the Hamburg al-Qaida cell, but denying knowledge of the plot to attack the United States. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
El Motassadeq testified that he met Atta in 1996 and that they were among 30-40 Muslim friends at Hamburg-Harburg Technical University who frequently shared meals.
``It was no organized group ... just maybe people you’d meet on the street and agree to eat together,″ el Motassadeq said. ``I knew many people much better than Atta.″
Pressed by the prosecution for further details about his relationship with Atta, el Motassadeq told the court he allowed the Egyptian engineer to use his computer to access the Internet, but maintained that was not unusual.
``I kept my doors open for everyone,″ el Motassadeq said. ``Anyone could come in and use my computer if they chose.″
Tuesday was the third and final day of el Motassadeq’s scheduled testimony. Under German courtroom procedure he could be called back to testify after other witnesses.
A thin man with a full, trimmed beard, el Motassadeq appeared calm and relaxed as he was escorted into the courtroom, smiling and chatting with his attorneys and a German-Arabic interpreter.
Key to the prosecution’s case is proving that el Motassadeq provided logistical support to the Sept. 11 pilots, using his power of attorney over suicide pilot Marwan al-Shehhi’s bank account to channel money to the hijackers as they studied at U.S. flight schools.
Questioned about the account Tuesday, El Motassadeq said two men _ one identifying himself as al-Shehhi’s brother _ approached him at a mosque near the university in early 2001 saying they were worried al-Shehhi had been kidnapped and wanted to look at the account information.
Asked by Presiding Judge Albrecht Mentz whether the men were looking for payments to hotels or airlines, el Motassadeq said, ``I don’t remember exactly what we did, but they wanted to know whether there was money in the account.″
After looking at the balance, el Motassadeq said he explained to the men he understood al-Shehhi was at a camp in Afghanistan training to fight in Chechnya. As they left, he said he gave them his phone number, but never heard from them again.
Last week, el Motassadeq told the court he transferred money in August 2000 from the account to another suspected cell member who was to forward it to al-Shehhi in Afghanistan. Prosecutors maintain, however, that al-Shehhi and Atta were in an American flight school from July 2000 to January 2001 and the money was used to support them there.
Defense attorney Hans Leistritz said outside the court he thought his client fared well before the panel of five judges, who are deciding the case.
``I feel he had a reasonable explanation for everything,″ Leistritz said. ``If he thought al-Shehhi was in Afghanistan and he transferred the money from one Hamburg account to another Hamburg account, not to the USA, then it is not a problem.″
Some 160 witnesses are expected to testify at the trial, which continues Wednesday with a fellow student from Hamburg’s Technical University being called to the stand.