Paul Hamilos in Madrid, Mark Tran and agencies
Wednesday October 31, 2007
To the consternation of some survivors and relatives of the victims, one of the accused masterminds, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, known as “Mohamed the Egyptian”, was acquitted along with six others. He is in prison in Milan, Italy, after being convicted of belonging to an international terrorist group.
A representative from a victims’ association said he was unhappy that some of the accused were still walking free.
“It seems to us that only a few of them got a lot of years in prison. There aren’t many heavy sentences considering how many people were affected,” Eutiquio Gutierrez, whose 39-year-old daughter died in the bombings, told Reuters.
Three of the eight main suspects – Emilio Trashorras, a Spaniard, and Jamal Zougam and Othman el-Gnaoui, both Moroccans – received sentences of nearly 40,000 years each. Under Spanish law, however, they can only serve a maximum of 40 years.
Four other lead defendants – Youssef Belhadj, Hassan el Haski, Abdulmajid Bouchar and Rafa Zouhier – were acquitted of murder but convicted of lesser charges including belonging to a terrorist group or trafficking in weapons. Fourteen other people were found guilty of lesser charges such as belonging to a terrorist group.
Judge Javier Gomez Bermudez, who ruled out the participation of the Basque separatist group Eta in the bombings, spent more than an hour summing up the case before delivering verdicts on each of the accused. He also announced compensation for victims ranging from 30,000 euros (£21,000) to 1.5m euros.
Earlier, the defendants were driven to the court on the outskirts of Madrid under high security as helicopters buzzed overhead and scores of police officers stood guard.
The verdicts and sentences were the culmination of nearly five months of testimony by hundreds of witnesses, arguments by more than 40 attorneys, and sporadic hunger strikes by several of the 28 accused.
The defendants were variously accused of masterminding, carrying out or helping to prepare the attacks on four packed commuter trains heading into Madrid from working-class neighbourhoods during the morning rush hour of March 11 2004.
The blasts, from 10 backpacks filled with dynamite and nails, killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,800 in Europe’s worst terror attack since the bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, which claimed 270 lives.
Prosecutors sought symbolic sentences of up to 38,976 years each for the eight lead defendants – 30 years for each of the people killed in the attacks, 18 years for each of the wounded, plus more time for other terrorism-related charges. Spain has no death penalty or life imprisonment.
Nine of the 28 defendants, including one woman, were Spaniards charged with supplying stolen dynamite used in the string of rapid-fire explosions. All 28 said they were innocent.
Three weeks after the bombings, seven of the alleged ringleaders blew themselves up as Spanish police surrounded the flat where they were hiding.
Among the dead were Serhane Ben Abdelmajid, known as the Tunisian and the alleged mastermind of the plot, and Jamal Ahmidan, a hashish trafficker turned fundamentalist, nicknamed the Chinaman.
At least four suspects, including two who may have been central to the attack, have disappeared. One is understood to have died in a suicide attack in Iraq.
The figure who drew most attention at the trial was Osman, said to be the link between the Madrid bombers and other Islamist terrorist groups. He was arrested in Milan in June 2004 after allegedly saying in wiretapped conversations that he planned the train bombings. Osman claimed he had been mistranslated, and condemned the attacks during the trial.
Suspects accused of planting the bombs include Zougam and Abdelmajid Bouchar. The latter was said to have fled the flat in Leganés just before the alleged ringleaders killed themselves.
The events of 11-M, as the attacks are known in Spain, initially divided the country along political lines and decisively influenced political events. The bombings were carried out three days before a general election, in which the incumbent conservative Popular party (PP) of José María Aznar was defeated by the Spanish Socialist Workers party (PSOE), led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. It is argued that the bombers intended their attacks to force a change of government and the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq, one of the PSOE’s campaign pledges.
From the moment of the attacks, the PP argued that they were the work of the Basque separatist group Eta. Mr Aznar phoned newspaper editors, assuring them this was the case. Despite evidence soon emerging of a van containing detonators linked to the attacks and a recording of verses from the Qur’an, the PP stuck to its line.
The Eta theory even reached court, with lawyers for those victims’ associations supportive of the PP raising the idea of a connection between Islamist and Basque terrorism. No evidence of such a link was put forward.
Rogelio Alonso, a lecturer in politics and terrorism at King Juan Carlos University, said he believed the trial had shown that “it is possible to fight this type of [Islamist] terrorism through the courts”. He also said the investigation had uncovered a link between the Madrid suspects and the wider world of al-Qaida.
However, Scott Atran, a US academic who has investigated the Hamburg cell connected to the September 11 2001 attacks in the US as well as those behind the Bali bomb attacks of 2002, and who witnessed the trial, said: “There isn’t the slightest bit of evidence of any relationship with al-Qaida. We’ve been looking at it closely for years and we’ve been briefed by everybody under the sun … and nothing connects them.”
Mr Zapatero said after the verdict: “The lesson that we can learn is the need to work together against terrorism.”
Before the trial, the prime minister asked both political parties to support the court’s ruling and put the acrimony behind them. That call was unlikely to be heeded, however, particularly in the midst of a contentious campaign ahead of national elections due next March.
Angel Acebes, the second most senior member of the PP, this week accused the government of preparing to use the verdict to attack the conservatives.
“We have never used a terrorist attack for electoral gains,” he said.
He added that the Socialist party “has done that and continues doing it”, in a reference to Mr Zapatero’s victory after the March 11 attacks.