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Thursday, 25 July, 2002, 21:55 GMT 22:55 UK
Moussaoui drops guilty plea
Workers in the Remains of the World Trade Center following 11 September attacks
Moussaoui claims he had prior knowledge of the attacks
After a confusing hearing in a US courtroom, the only man charged over the 11 September terror attacks has withdrawn a guilty plea - shortly after making it.

Zacarias Moussaoui
Moussaoui's lawyers believe he is mentally ill

The retraction came after US District Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled that Zacarias Moussaoui was mentally fit to enter a plea, and he proceeded to plead guilty to four of the six conspiracy charges he faces - the ones that carry the death penalty.

But then Judge Brinkema explained that such a plea would mean he accepted responsibility for any involvement in the planning or execution of the attacks that left more than 3,000 dead.

After a recess, the defendant withdrew his plea, quoting William Shakespeare's play Hamlet and calling upon his own interpretation of the Islamic faith.

"Hamlet said: 'To be or not to be, that is the question.' I say: To plead guilty or not to plead guilty, that is the question," he told the court.

"As a Muslim, I cannot endorse anything with the condition of death," he added.

The dramatic turn of events now means that French citizen Mr Moussaoui is likely to face a full trial, the BBC's Justin Webb reports from outside the courtoom in Alexandria, Virginia.

First pleas

The hearing came after last week's surprise move, when Mr Moussaoui rose in the courtroom and announced that he wanted to plead guilty. He added that he was a member al-Qaeda and that he had prior knowledge of the 11 September attacks.

But the judge convinced him then to take some time to think about it, and this week wrote to him to explain what a guilty plea would mean.

Mr Moussaoui's court-appointed lawyers tried to delay Thursday's hearing, arguing that he needed further mental examination.

Mr Moussaoui has fired his lawyers and is insisting on representing himself, but his legal team remains involved in the case on a court order.

Quick change

On Thursday, Mr Moussaoui at first said he would plead guilty to four counts of conspiracy.

"Today I truthfully will enter on some of the charges, not all, a plea of guilty," he told the judge.

But the judge questioned him about his involvement in the attacks, and it became obvious that Mr Moussaoui was not in fact admitting that he had taken part in the 11 September conspiracy - the essence of the charges against him.

"They allege I provided a guest house, I accept," he said. "If they allege providing training, it is possible for me to accept," he said.

"I plead guilty to what is in the indictment, but it still doesn't put me on the plane."

Mr Moussaoui declared: "I want to plead only for what I did, not for what they say I did."

After the exchange, Judge Brinkema told Mr Moussaoui: "At this point I do not believe you are prepared to make a guilty plea because you are not prepared to admit the essence of the conspiracy,"

Going it alone

None of Mr Moussaoui's defence team have been in contact with their client since he asked to fire them in June, alleging that they were plotting to kill him.

"We don't know why Mr Moussaoui believes the way he does. It's that belief that caused us to question his mental status," said the lead defence lawyer, Frank Dunham.

Last week, as he tried to enter a guilty plea, Mr Moussaoui pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network.

The US Government holds Bin Laden and al-Qaeda responsible for the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

Mr Moussaoui said last week that he wanted to plead guilty in order to move onto the punishment phase of the trial.

The US authorities have already said they are seeking his execution.

The BBC's Jacky Rowland
"This story has more than its share of surprises"
Zacarias Moussaoui's mother, Aicha el-Wafi
"After eleven months... my son is no longer able to think rationally"
Legal expert Ira Robbins
"To have a valid plea, the defendant must enter it knowingly and voluntarily"

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See also:

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