Rupert Cornwell: Out of America Special

'Buried alive'. So said Zacarias Moussaoui's mother as he was sentenced to life without parole last week. But in not putting him to death, US justice has won an important victory
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If the macabre four-year soap opera that was the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui had a hero, it was most certainly not the accused - the ranting, taunting member of al-Qa'ida whose precise role in the 9/11 plot remains a mystery even now. Nor was it the court-appointed legal team given the well-nigh impossible task of defending him.

Nor was it even the relatives of the victims on that terrible day in 2001, who told their heartbreaking stories; nor the brave passengers of United Airlines flight 93, whose uprising against the hijackers was preserved in the wrenching cockpit recording played publicly for the first time during the trial's final penalty stage. Nor was it even the jury, who gave the lie to the world's image of America as a country that sees capital punishment as the solution to every criminal problem.

No, the hero, or rather heroine, was a diminutive elderly woman barely 5ft 2ins tall, her greying hair pulled back into a school-matronly bun, peering out over spectacles half way down her nose. Leonie Brinkema was the federal judge whose lot was to conduct one of America's highest-profile and most sensitive trials of recent times, watched around the world, and featuring a defendant determined to turn the event into a theatre show for the benefit of himself and his malign cause.

Never, even when facing the direst provocation, did she lose control of proceedings. And when everything was finally over on Thursday - after she formally sentenced Moussaoui to the term of life in jail without parole the previous day - she found the perfect words.

"You came here to be a martyr and to die in a big bang of glory," she told the 38-year-old French-Moroccan terrorist, who had pleaded guilty in 2005 to conspiring with al-Qa'ida in the attacks which killed 3,000 people. "But to paraphrase the poet TS Eliot, you will die with a whimper." Whimper is not the word one would associate with Moussaoui, whose erratic outbursts and brazen histrionics have driven even his own defence team to distraction. But whimper is an exaggeration when applied to what will be heard from Moussaoui for the rest of his natural life.

By the time you read this, he will probably already have been transferred to the bleakest, most secure federal prison in the US, the "Supermax" penitentiary near Florence, Colorado, known, as "the Alcatraz of the Rockies". In the words of his mother, this is where Moussaoui will be "buried alive". He will join some of the country's most famous convicted criminals. Among them are the "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, as well as Terry Nichols, the accomplice of Timothy McVeigh in the 1995 Oklahoma bombing that, until 9/11, was the deadliest terrorist act on US soil.

Richard Reid, the British-born "shoe bomber", is there, as is Robert Hanssen, the former high-ranking FBI official who spied for the Soviet Union and Russia for 15 years, and Ramzi Yousef, who plotted the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. But Moussaoui will see little of them.

He will spend 23 hours a day in a cell cast out of concrete, measuring some 7ft by 11ft. It has a concrete bed, an immovable concrete stool and desk, fitted with a small black and white TV that carries a few selected channels and closed-circuit classes and religious services. A narrow four-inch window offers a view on an inner courtyard.

For the first years at least, he will have no contact with his fellow prisoners. His only visitors will be his lawyers. Each time he is allowed out of his cell, it will be in shackles. And so it will be for ever, under a life sentence without possibility of parole that is perhaps even worse than death.

Many Americans will view the outcome with very mixed feelings. The overwhelming expectation had been that Moussaoui would be sentenced to die, especially after he had bragged of being a key participant in the conspiracy and had jeered at the prosecution witnesses, including relatives of the dead who were in tears as they described their loss.

But in their 41 hours of deliberations, the jurors found a number of mitigating factors. Three jurors, for instance, insisted that Moussaoui's role in the plot was minimal. Perhaps less predictably, nine of them attached importance to his dysfunctional childhood, scarred by abuse from his father and a lack of emotional support from his mother.

It was an astonishingly rational end to what had often seemed a most irrational case. Was Moussaoui a sane man pretending to be mad, in order to escape execution? Or was he genuinely mad? Or were his antics meant to secure the death penalty, and thus enter the book of martyrs for his perverted version of the Islamic faith? The answer may never be known.

Most important of all, however, Judge Brinkema proved the system can work, even in the messiest circumstances. "America, you have lost," Moussaoui sneered in his final appearance, gloating at the prosecutors' failure to win a death sentence. In fact America achieved a precious victory.

Several times proceedings teetered on the brink of collapse - over Moussaoui's insistence on defending himself, over whether captured terrorist suspects could be called as witnesses, over crass mistakes by the prosecution, over his rantings and his apparently wilful self-incrimination when he claimed that he and Reid were assigned on a mission to fly a plane into the White House. But steered by Brinkema, justice held firm.

For the Bush administration, however, this victory could be awkward. The Moussaoui case has proved that, contrary to government claims, terrorist suspects can have a fair trial in a normal US court. Which of course raises yet more questions about Guantanamo Bay and the entire pursuit of those responsible for 9/11. In the first place, how can the wretched inmates at Guantanamo - some of them of far less significance than Moussaoui yet held for more than four years at the prison in Cuba - be denied their own day in court here on the US mainland? Thus far only 10 of the 500-odd inmates there have even been charged with any offence.

Then there are the wider repercussions for the war on terror. It may well be that Zacarias Moussaoui, a relative minnow, turns out to be the only person tried here in connection with 9/11. But why? True, the 19 hijackers who actually carried out the attacks died on the day itself. Various other members of the al-Qa'ida high command who helped to arrange it have been killed. But others, including Khalid Shelk Mohammed, the purported mastermind of the operation, have been captured.

By now these individuals have surely been drained of all relevant operational intelligence. Will they simply rot in unknown CIA jails and detention centres? Could they not be given some form of public trial, so that Americans have an opportunity to learn more of the truth about that terrible day? Then, assuming they are convicted, they could either be sentenced to death or, like Moussaoui, be sent to spend the rest of their days in the Alcatraz of the Rockies.