It’s Liberty vs. Security in Spanish Terror Trial

Times Staff Writer

Spaniards call it a mega-trial, for its size and potential reach.

Twenty-four defendants. One hundred thousand pages of evidence. A prosecutor demanding prison sentences totaling many lifetimes.

The men in the dock -- almost all of them Muslim immigrants -- profess their innocence.

Europe’s biggest trial to date of alleged Al Qaeda sympathizers has adjourned to await a verdict. Yet after enormous publicity surrounding the case involving the Sept. 11 attacks, critics contend that the prosecution is fatally flawed and conviction is not at all certain.


Spain’s attempt to root out and bring to justice Islamic militants illustrates the debate raging across Europe: How do democracies eradicate extremist violence without sacrificing human and civil rights?

In European societies that have traditionally favored the preservation of liberties above all, the bombings in London and last year’s attacks in Madrid have changed the playing field.

Britain plans legislation that criminalizes speech glorifying acts of violence. France and the Netherlands are tightening their loose borders. Last month, Italy approved new laws that expand police powers, allow forcible taking of DNA samples from suspects and create a “super-prosecutor” for terrorism. Spain is reluctantly monitoring mosques and registering imams.

The mega-trial in Madrid provides examples of possible recourses and likely pitfalls.


In it, three defendants stand accused of using Spain as a staging ground to help plot the Sept. 11 attacks. The other 21 defendants face a variety of terrorism-related charges, including belonging to an Al Qaeda cell.

A verdict in the three-month trial is expected in September.

Pedro Rubira, the lead state prosecutor, said the trial should serve as an example to world powers, showing that the judicial process was the way to fight terrorism.

“There are alternatives to what we are seeing each day in the fight against Islamic terrorism,” Rubira said in his summation arguments. “We do not need detention camps, we do not need wars. What we need are precisely these kinds of trials that strengthen the rule of law.”


Rubira told the three judges who will issue the verdict that “the world will be watching” their decision. “Be aware that what you do not only affects Spain but affects the whole world.”

Defense attorneys, however, said the trial exemplified exactly the wrong approach in tackling terrorism. One called it an “inquisition,” a word that packs a special wallop in the country where five centuries ago the Inquisition was used to punish Jews and Muslims. Another attorney, Jacinto Gil, who represents two of the accused, said Arabs in Spain were again being persecuted. Overzealous investigators who knew little about Arab culture conducted a reckless probe and alienated a Muslim community that otherwise might have been more cooperative in exposing bad elements, the lawyers said.

Coming in for the most criticism was Judge Baltasar Garzon, a magistrate with a reputation for grabbing headlines who has sought to indict none other than Osama bin Laden. Under the Spanish system, Garzon is an investigating judge who builds the case, compiles evidence and questions defendants before turning it over to trial. Garzon maintains that he is fighting for a broader, global form of jurisprudence, but his critics charge that his cases are politically motivated and sometimes rely on unfounded suspicions.

The lack of familiarity with Arab customs is a problem in many parts of Europe where radical Islamic cells have grown in recent years. In countries such as Spain, Italy and France that rely heavily on wiretaps for their investigations, law enforcement officials acknowledge a severe shortage of qualified Arabic-language translators.


In the mega-trial, the key defendant, Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, is alleged to be the head of the purported Spanish cell, and the strongest evidence against the Syrian-born Spaniard is based on wiretaps.

Barakat, known as Abu Dahdah, was overheard speaking to a militant in London in what investigators said was code about the Sept. 11 attacks, 15 days before they happened. His telephone number turned up in a Hamburg, Germany, apartment of Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers who crashed a jet into the World Trade Center in New York. Barakat and a codefendant, Driss Chebli, are accused of arranging a July 16, 2001, meeting in Spain for Atta and others to plan the U.S. attacks.

Rubira said in court documents that Barakat headed a cell known as the Soldiers of Allah dedicated to promoting global jihad and that he built a terrorist infrastructure and recruited young Muslims living in Spain, both legally and illegally, for training in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Pakistan.

Barakat, speaking in court on one of the last days of the trial, said the cell was “an invention” of the prosecution that targeted a community of mostly Syrian-born naturalized Spaniards united through friendship and family.


For Barakat, Chebli and a third man who supposedly took videos of the World Trade Center and other U.S. sites, Rubira sought sentences totaling tens of thousands of years. Under Spanish law, however, a convicted terrorist can spend no more than 40 years in prison. Spain has no death penalty or term of life imprisonment.

Another defendant, who faces a much lesser penalty of nine years in prison if found guilty, is well-known journalist Taysir Alouni, a correspondent for the Arab satellite station Al Jazeera. Alouni gained international fame by broadcasting the first interview with Bin Laden, from Afghanistan, after Sept. 11.

In this trial, Alouni is accused of housing terrorist suspects and belonging to the cell. Rubira said Alouni’s interview with Bin Laden was an “interview with his boss.” Alouni said the trial has put Spain’s entire Muslim community under a dark cloud of suspicion.

“No one dares to call on the telephone. People now don’t dare to visit their friends,” Alouni told the court. “This Muslim community continues to experience the ... punishment.”


Khaled Taha, a London-based attorney who was one of about a dozen observers monitoring the trial on behalf of Lawyers Without Borders, said the case was built largely on misunderstandings of Arab customs and language. Bugged telephone conversations were misinterpreted, he said, and social gatherings and shared hospitality too readily seen as sinister meetings.

“The case seems to be more about politics than evidence,” said Taha, a 78-year-old Iraqi exile. “But we have full confidence in Spanish justice.”

El Pais, a leading Spanish daily that followed the investigation and trial in detail, expressed doubts that the men would be convicted. Although the guilt of at least some of them is “probable,” El Pais said, “the evidence is circumstantial and hardly overwhelming.”

“Obviously, the very clandestine nature of terrorist groups makes it difficult to find evidence of the preparation of attacks,” the paper said. But in this case “the ambiguity of some clues can be interpreted one way or another and could serve as much to condemn as to absolve.”


Rubira said the trial, despite any failings, will show that the law and judicial rules in democratic countries can be applied, rather than sacrificed, in the prosecution of terrorists. And, he said, it will show how to build a case against a network with tentacles reaching into many countries.

Whatever the verdict, doubts over the case will linger along with questions about what is the most effective way to fight terrorism.

Especially after the London bombings, European officials have tried to build a spirit of cooperation among law enforcement agencies. They have succeeded to some extent, but there remains deep mistrust and the reluctance of myriad agencies to share intelligence with counterparts among 25 nations.

One major advance, a Europe-wide arrest warrant, took a hit last month, when Germany judged it unconstitutional and refused to obey it -- freeing an Al Qaeda suspect sought in Spain.


Like much of Europe, Spain is sensitive when it comes to civil rights. Emerging from a long dictatorship that ended not even 30 years ago, Spaniards are loath to tolerate legislation that appears to infringe on personal freedoms.

At the same time, Spain still feels very much under threat. Intelligence officials have identified at least 20 people with Spanish passports who they say are training in Iraq and planning to return to Europe to attack.

Lawyer Ana Palacio, Spain’s foreign minister under the conservative government that lost power last year, said Spaniards as well as all Europeans were going to have to understand that terrorism was an ongoing threat that required extraordinary measures.

“We have to take a very clear stand on behalf of the values that we think are at the basis of our society and say that anyone who comes here has to abide by them,” she said. “Otherwise, we are on shifting sands, trying to fight terrorism without a foundation.”


Gil, the defense attorney in the mega-trial, says law enforcement and judicial authorities are going to have to be better educated if they hope to penetrate Islamic terrorist networks.

“Right now, they don’t know how to distinguish between a cultural act and a subversive act,” he said. “They’re going to have to transform their mentality.”