"20th man" ruled competent

An embarrassing case in the war on terror may be wrapping up as Zacarias Moussaoui prepares to plead guilty in the 9/11 attacks.

Published April 21, 2005 2:42PM (EDT)

Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States for the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, is set to appear in court this week to register a guilty plea.

In a notice issued by the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., court officials Wednesday said that the hearing was convened with the express purpose of entering a guilty plea from Moussaoui, and to move forward on a case that has become an embarrassment to the Bush administration. More than three years after the attacks, the administration has failed to bring any captured al-Qaida figures to trial.

In Moussaoui's case, delays, legal wrangling and courtroom outbursts turned the test case into a bizarre spectacle punctuated by the suspect's outbursts and volatile behavior. Moussaoui's mental state was the prime consideration before the U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, who issued her decision after a one-hour private meeting with Moussaoui Wednesday morning.

The meeting was convened two weeks after Moussaoui wrote to the judge indicating that after more than three and a half years in prison he was willing to plead guilty to conspiracy and terrorism, even though these admissions would carry the death penalty.

According to some reports, Moussaoui's decision arose from his conviction that that would enable him to move immediately toward an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court. However, his court-appointed lawyers argue that he is unfit to stand trial, and they have objected to his decision.

But, two years after stripping Moussaoui of the right to conduct his own defense, Brinkema evidently was persuaded that he was mentally competent. It also appears that Brinkema received assurances that Moussaoui would not reverse his decision, as he did in 2002 when he withdrew a guilty plea after one week.

If he does decide to stick with his decision and plead guilty Thursday, he faces the very real possibility of a death sentence, since it is unlikely that the prosecutors will relent on their demand for the ultimate penalty.

Moussaoui, 36, a French citizen of Moroccan extraction, was arrested a month before the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. prosecutors believe that he is the so-called 20th man, the missing hijacker who was to have joined the 19 others who commandeered the aircraft that flew into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Moussaoui admits to membership in al-Qaida, but maintains he was training for a different operation. His trial has been delayed on three occasions and marked by arguments over his demands to interview other al-Qaida members in U.S. custody, who he says could clear him.

By Suzanne Goldenberg

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