HAMBURG, Germany – A Moroccan received the maximum 15-year sentence Wednesday for helping the Al Qaeda hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks -- the first conviction anywhere of a suspect in the terror plot against the United States.
Mounir el Motassadeq, 28, showed no emotion but occasionally shook his head or checked his watch as he listened to the verdict finding him guilty of more than 3,000 counts of accessory to murder.
El Motassadeq helped pay tuition and rent for members of the Hamburg-based Al Qaeda cell -- allowing them to live as students as they plotted the attacks, prosecutors said.
Judge Albrecht Mentz said el Motassadeq lied when he testified he was unaware of the plot despite being close friends with homicide hijackers Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and other cell members.
Mentz said he agreed with prosecutors who earlier described the defendant as "a cog that kept the machinery going."
He "belonged to this group since its inception. ... He knew and approved the key elements of the planned attacks," the judge said.
Sept. 11 victims' relatives who participated in the trial as co-plaintiffs -- some offering emotional testimony that Mentz said prompted him to impose the maximum sentence -- praised the verdict.
Joan Molinaro of New York City said she was "thrilled."
"It's the first small victory we've had since 9/11," said Molinaro, whose firefighter son Carl was killed at the World Trade Center. "I kind of feel like, 'OK, Carl, we got one,"' she said. "I think my son is smiling."
Another New Yorker, Kathy Ashton -- whose son Tommy was killed at the World Trade Center -- called the 15-year sentence "a drop in the bucket, especially for a young man, but at least it's something."
Interior Minister Otto Schily hailed the verdict as a "success in the fight" against terror. "It is a warning to all those who think they can toy with the idea of aligning themselves with terrorist networks."
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said Wednesday the conviction "stands as a stark reminder that we are united in our efforts to hunt down Al Qaeda terrorists and bring them to justice. Together, the United States and all freedom-loving nations will defeat international terrorism."
While suspects in the plot detained in the United States face possible death sentences if convicted, el Motassadeq's 15-year sentence is the maximum allowed under German law. However, he becomes eligible for parole after the minimum of 10 years with 15 months off for time served. Even defendants in Germany sentenced to life in prison generally serve at most 15 years.
El Motassadeq, a slight, bearded man who admitted receiving Al Qaeda training in Afghanistan, denied the charges during his 3-month trial. The defense, which had argued the evidence was circumstantial, said it would appeal.
In addition to 3,066 counts of accessory to murder, el Motassadeq was convicted of five counts of being an accessory to attempted murder and an accessory to bodily injury -- charges introduced so five wounded survivors of the attacks, including a Navy officer at the Pentagon, could join the trial as co-plaintiffs.
Mentz said it was hard to give a man with two small children the maximum sentence, but that he had to consider the enormity of the crime and el Motassadeq's lack of contrition even after American co-plaintiffs told the court of their suffering.
Witnesses illustrated el Motassadeq's enthusiasm for the plot, the judge said.
"Al-Shehhi said, 'There will be thousands of dead', and the defendant said, 'We will dance on their graves,"' Mentz said, citing witness testimony.
Schily said the penalty was severe, a judgment shared by a lawyer representing many of the more than 20 American family members and survivors who joined the prosecution in efforts to secure the maximum sentence.
"They wanted justice and they got justice," said lawyer Ulrich von Jeinsen. "They accept that we have another system and since he got the maximum sentence they will be satisfied."
Stephen Push, whose wife was killed in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, also praised the Hamburg judges, but added: "I'm just disappointed that the German legal system doesn't allow for penalties that are appropriate for crimes of this nature."
El Motassadeq was raised in a Moroccan middle-class family, came to Germany as a student in 1993 and married a Russian woman. By 1995, he was studying electrical engineering in Hamburg, where he is believed to have first met Atta no later than the following year.
He acknowledged being friends with Atta, al-Shehhi and other alleged members of the Hamburg cell including homicide pilot Ziad Jarrah; and Ramzi Binalshibh, Said Bahaji and Zakariya Essabar, all suspected of helping organize the cell.
Witnesses said el Motassadeq was as radical as the rest of the group, often talking of jihad -- holy war -- and his hatred of Israel and the United States.
Prosecutors allege he 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. They also noted that he signed Atta's will.
El Motassadeq explained both as things he simply did for friends.
He denied for nearly a year after his arrest ever having been to Afghanistan. But on the first day of trial, he admitted training in one of Usama bin Laden's camps there in 2000, saying he thought it was a Muslim's duty to learn self-defense.
In deciding to appeal, defense lawyers cited the court's failure to obtain testimony by Binalshibh and Mohammed Haydar Zammar, two friends who they said could exonerate the defendant.
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.
Both Syria and the United States refused to release the men to testify, German authorities refused 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.
Mentz rejected the defense argument. "The decision of a foreign government cannot be used in Germany as the grounds for an unfair trial," he said.