Man alleged to be 20th hijacker defies court 'in the name of Allah'

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The Independent Online

Zacarias Moussaoui, the first and – as yet – only person to be charged in connection with the 11 September attacks, appeared in court yesterday, where he refused to plead to charges of conspiring with Osama bin Laden's network to murder thousands of civilians.

He dismissed the charges in a couple of sentences. "In the name of Allah, I do not have anything to plead," he said in heavily accented English, having first muttered something apparently in Arabic. "I enter no plea. Thank you very much."

Having made his comments from a lectern in the court, Mr Moussaoui was taken back to his seat at the defence table where he slouched unshackled in his chair, staring straight ahead, occasionally stroking his full beard.

He kept a piece of crumpled brown paper on the table in front of him. The judge, Leonie Brinkema, told his lawyers she took his comments to represent a "not guilty" plea. One replied: "Yes. That is correct."

Mr Moussaoui, who is 33 and a French citizen of Moroccan descent, has been described as the "20th hijacker" and is accused of conspiring with the 19 men who committed the suicide attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, killing about 3,000 people.

When he appeared in the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, yesterday, he wore a drab green jail-issue jumpsuit with the word "prisoner" printed on the back.

The Frenchman faces a total of six charges – four of which carry the death penalty if the prosecution decides to seek it. While it has until 29 March to decide, it seems certain that the American public would not accept anything else should Mr Moussaoui be convicted. The judge decided, despite claims from the defence that it would not have sufficient time to prepare, that the trial would begin on 14 October.

The 31-page indictment that lists the charges accuses Mr Moussaoui of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, to commit aircraft piracy, to destroy aircraft, to use weapons of mass destruction, to murder US employees and to destroy property. What it does not spell out is the belief of investigators that Mr Moussaoui was due to have been part of the hijack team that seized United Airlines flight 93 – the plane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers stormed the cockpit. There were only four hijackers on board that plane, but five on each of the other three aircraft seized.

Investigators are also looking into possible links between Mr Moussaoui and Richard Reid, the Briton accused of trying to destroy an aircraft travelling between Paris and Miami two weeks ago by using explosives packed in his shoes.

The men attended the same south London mosque at the same time and there are reports that MI5 intercepted phone calls between them. The two may also have attended the same al-Qa'ida training camp in Afghanistan.

Mr Moussaoui's absence on the morning of 11 September is explained by his arrest in Minnesota on 16 August on immigration violations, after he aroused suspicion at a flight school. Having paid $6,300 (£4,300) for lessons on a jet flight simulator, he proved to be an inept student and apparently explained to his instructors he only wanted to learn how to steer an aircraft in flight, not how to take off or land.

Mr Moussaoui was brought to the courthouse yesterday before dawn and under tight security. The courthouse is about three miles from the Pentagon, where workers are still repairing the section of the building destroyed by his alleged co-conspirators, and where 189 people perished.