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Wednesday, 2 January, 2002, 22:04 GMT
Courtroom view of terror trial
Zacarias Moussaoui
Moussaoui refused to enter a plea
Tim Franks

In the official police mugshot he appears shaven-headed and bull-necked. But on this cold Virginian morning, Zacarias Moussaoui appeared much smaller.

He walked into courtroom 700 in the federal courthouse in Alexandria looking as if he had lost weight from the time of his arrest in August. His hair has grown into a bushy clump on the back of his head.

He has a full beard, which he stroked contemplatively during the 28-minute court hearing.

He wore the garb of a defendant - a green prison overall with the word "prisoner" stamped in cracked paint on the back.

He was not shackled - there was little need, when the courtroom was teeming with US marshals, and the building was surrounded by security and roadblocks.

No plea

The hearing was in one sense a formality: an arraignment is just an occasion for the judge to check the defendant understands the charges, for the defendant to plead guilty or not, and for a trial date to be set.

In the name of Allah, I do not have anything to plea, and I enter no plea

Zacarias Moussaoui

This, though, is not an ordinary trial.

Everyone inside the courtroom knew which way Mr Moussaoui would plead. But there was still a sense of enormous anticipation as the judge, the diminutive and elderly Leonie Brinkema, asked him how he intended to plead.

Mr Moussaoui stood up, walked a couple of steps to a lectern with a microphone and addressed the judge.

"In the name of Allah," he began, his voice quiet but firm, his English tinged with a heavy French accent, "I do not have anything to plea, and I enter no plea. Thank you very much."

Judge Brinkema said she took that to be a plea of not guilty. Yes, answered the defendant's legal team.

Strategies

The rest of the hearing was spent with the judge, the prosecution and the defence putting dates in their diaries.

For the prosecution, 29 March will be the date by when they have to decide whether they are going to press for the death penalty - the punishment possible in four out of the six counts against Mr Moussaoui.

For the defence, the priority had been to delay the start of the trial.

Prosecutors wanted it to start on 14 October, with jury selection to begin on 30 September. Mr Moussaoui's lawyers wanted February 2003.

They argued in court that there was a morass of evidence to sift, some of which would need security clearance.

There were witnesses to speak to in several countries - including Spain, Britain, Germany and France.

The defence team would have to familiarise themselves with al-Qaeda and even the principles of Islam, so wide was the indictment against their client.

And the proximity of 30 September to the anniversary of the 11 September attacks would make jury selection - the choosing of an unbiased 12 - extremely difficult.

That would be made all the trickier by the closeness of the federal courthouse in Alexandria to the Pentagon - where one of the hijacked planes crashed.

The judge rules

Judge Brinkema listened impassively and then dismissed the defence arguments.

The anniversary would not impinge, she said, the defence can have all the resources they need, and the jury pool in Northern Virginia was perfectly good.

With that everyone inside the courtroom rose, as the judge left the chamber - everyone that is except for Zacarias Moussaoui, who stayed pointedly in his seat.

He was then taken back to his secret detention site - apparently somewhere in Alexandria.

The authorities - right up to Attorney General John Ashcroft - are sounding confident that they have got "the 20th hijacker".

The defence will argue that the evidence is only circumstantial, and that a fair hearing will be very tough to engineer.

At least now, the first step has been taken of what will be a complex and highly sensitive trial.

See also:

02 Jan 02 | Americas
US terror suspect defies court
13 Dec 01 | Americas
Open trial for US terror suspect
11 Dec 01 | Americas
America's first accused
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