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Lawyer seeks justice for hated client

Times Staff Writer

It is Friday night, the end of another week defending the most hated man in Spain, and attorney Endika Zulueta is slumped behind his desk.

Friends visit. Music floats from a stereo. A bottle of honeyed rum from the Canary Islands slowly empties.

The decision to defend a man accused of mass murder did not come easily. It weighs on Zulueta, in his rare still moments, when he agonizes over whether he can mount a convincing defense in Europe’s largest terrorism trial, and whether anyone will listen.

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Two other attorneys appointed by the court to represent Egyptian national Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed quit. In a flood of reluctance and exhilaration, Zulueta agreed to take on the case, without pay, even though it may send him to the poorhouse and has earned him bad press and insults.

His client is accused of orchestrating the March 11, 2004, bombings of commuter trains in Madrid that killed nearly 200 people and wounded about 2,000 others, a tragedy that was to Spain what Sept. 11 is to the United States.

For Zulueta, a wiry 43-year-old with frenetic energy, this high-profile trial is a chance to make a name for himself. But the attorney also sees an opportunity to dramatize a larger political cause.

In the tradition of a Ramsey Clark (who defended Saddam Hussein) or a William Kunstler (the Chicago Seven), Zulueta and a handful of attorneys in Europe see defending highly unpopular or controversial clients as a defense of the rule of law. They argue that even the heinous deserve their day in court, just as frightened and besieged societies are tempted to jettison judicial protections, dispatch perceived bad guys posthaste to prisons (a la Guantanamo) and throw away the keys.

“For the general public, these people like Rabei are guilty, period,” Zulueta said. “All the more reason to take the case.”

It’s the pursuit of justice for society’s outcasts and undesirables, Zulueta says. And he probably couldn’t have picked a more undesirable client than Ahmed. Law enforcement authorities say the itinerant street vendor was heard in wiretapped conversations praising Islamic militants in Baghdad, planning to recruit new ones and relishing the beheading of an American hostage in Iraq. Of most importance here, he was recorded claiming to have been one of the brains behind the Madrid bombings -- a charge he later denied on the stand.

In Italy, where the incriminating tapes were made and where Ahmed was arrested, he was convicted of belonging to an international terrorist organization and then extradited to Spain. It is this very evidence, which forms the basis of numerous terrorism trials in Europe, that Zulueta wants to use the Madrid proceedings to challenge.

Since he took the case, Zulueta has been attacked in the press and on Spanish blogs. Some paint him as a radical leftist and pro-Basque separatist only barely short of being a terrorist himself.

“There are those who criticize, but it’s nothing that I cannot handle,” Zulueta said in a long, relaxed interview in his office just off Madrid’s central Puerta del Sol. “People who know me support me.”

His office is in a beautiful early-19th century building, up a marble staircase that one must take because the caged elevator is out of order. After 7 p.m. on the recent Friday, the waiting room was full. It included a couple of Arabic speakers and all were waiting to see one of Zulueta’s partners.

Zulueta was taking a break, a moment of free time that has become rare since the trial started.

Some of his friends were stopping by; they never get to see him anymore. An old journalist friend, the first person he met in law school a couple of decades ago, was there, taking calls on his cellphone from Zulueta’s mother, worried about her son. A couple they knew dropped in; they’d all met at the symbolic wedding of a lesbian pair a few years back, before Spain legalized same-sex marriage in 2005.

Zulueta is a Basque (which his critics try to seize on), and his politics tilt considerably toward the left, though he says he was never part of an organized political party.

It was growing up as the son of a factory worker in the Basque Country, in the last decade of the Franco dictatorship and during periods of heated street protests, that gave Zulueta his affinity for the underdog.

He eagerly joined the demonstrations, convinced as a youth of a “flame” that would ignite and transform society. While much of that idealism has since faded, Zulueta has written admiringly of young, radical Basque activists standing trial for violent protests.

He came to Madrid more than 20 years ago to study law and has lived here since. His Spanish no longer has a Basque accent.

Zulueta guards his privacy fiercely, reluctant to divulge many details of his personal life. There are no family photographs on his desk; framed diplomas and a poster by French photographer Robert Doisneau hang on the wall. He is childless, he says, which has allowed him to free up more time for his work.

He pays for his practice with quick-and-easy divorce cases. But his passion is working for the down-and-out -- the homeless, squatters, illegal immigrants and, now, alleged terrorists.

“Did you know, 85% of the people in jail today are poor and the disadvantaged?” he said. “That is not a coincidence.... A lawyer’s job is to defend, but it does not always work out like that. When it does, when you help the lower class or the less-protected, then that’s a privilege.”

Zulueta’s style in the courtroom has been aggressive, earning him reprimands from the presiding judge. (The judge later apologized.) On the first day of the trial, he had to coax his client to answer a few critical questions (such as, did you do it?) after the defendant had refused to recognize the court. The other day, he repeatedly challenged a government expert witness on Ahmed’s alleged ties to Afghanistan, until the witness had to concede he had no firsthand knowledge of the information to which he had testified.

Ahmed, who is on trial with 28 other suspects, including Moroccans and Spaniards, faces a sentence of more than 38,000 years if found guilty on all counts (though under Spanish law he would not serve more than 40 years).

Unlike more famous controversial lawyers, Zulueta is not getting paid, he says, because he is technically not a court-appointed attorney.

He was helping Ahmed’s original court-appointed lawyer, who quit; a second representative chosen by the court also quit. Ahmed was being arraigned and needed someone urgently. He remembered Zulueta and asked him to take the job. Zulueta says Ahmed has no money, and no family or friends have stepped up to assist him.

Zulueta cannot speak to his client -- he speaks no Arabic and Ahmed doesn’t know Spanish. They rely on interpreters, in short supply in the judicial system. Nor can Zulueta afford to hire experts to reexamine the damning tapes being used against Ahmed.

He did succeed in persuading the court to agree to perform a re-transcription and re-translation of the tapes, made by Italian investigators who bugged Ahmed’s phones and home in Milan, translated the Arabic they heard into Italian, which was then translated into Spanish.

Although it is Zulueta’s job to portray Ahmed as innocent, and he has said he believes his client is innocent, he does make a broader point in questioning the methods used to build cases against suspected terrorists in Europe. Until recently, investigators in Spain, Italy, France and other countries with burgeoning Muslim communities had few or no Arabic speakers among their ranks.

The investigators’ translations, Zulueta says, show ignorance of cultural idiosyncrasies and nuance. An Arabic word referring to a group can mean a group of friends, or one of unknown people. That makes a difference if you are speaking about a group of train bombers.

“They gave each phrase, despite all the cultural shades, such transcendence, yet they translated them almost frivolously,” Zulueta said.

Despite such misgivings, Zulueta expresses confidence in the Spanish judicial process.

“I want to believe, and I have faith,” he said, “that this trial is a fact and it will not be influenced by what’s going on in the streets. You cannot have a trial in the street.”

wilkinson@latimes.com

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Wilkinson, The Times’ Rome Bureau chief, was recently on assignment in Madrid.


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