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21 convicted in Madrid train blasts

Times Staff Writer

A Spanish court Wednesday convicted 21 men in the 2004 bombings of Madrid’s train system, the deadliest terrorist attack in continental Europe, but acquitted an Egyptian national whom authorities once touted as the mastermind.

Most of the 28 defendants, including two others originally accused of planning the bombings, were given sentences considerably lighter than those sought by prosecutors, angering survivors and families of the dead.

The mixed verdicts, contained in a 700-page ruling and announced in a heavily guarded courtroom on Madrid’s outskirts, cap a case that exposed the workings of Islamic terrorist networks in the heart of Europe and foreshadowed attacks in London and elsewhere.

A total of 191 people were killed and nearly 2,000 injured when explosives hidden in backpacks ripped through four commuter trains during morning rush hour on March 11, 2004.

The investigation eventually revealed a “franchise” of Islamic militants, inspired by Al Qaeda but who originated in the Maghreb region of northern Africa. They had lived and worked in Spain for years, sometimes on the crime-ridden fringes of society but more or less blended with the local community. They became actors in a new, more destructive kind of terrorism in a country long accustomed to the violence of Basque separatists.

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The trial, which started in February, reminded Spaniards of their vulnerability to attack. It was used as a political lightning rod in a bitter fight between the leftist government, elected just days after the bombings, and the ousted right-wing party.

Three defendants, two Moroccans and a Spaniard accused of supplying explosives, were convicted of mass murder and sentenced to tens of thousands of years in prison. Under Spanish law, however, they will serve no more than 40 years. Spain has neither a death penalty nor life imprisonment.

Eighteen other defendants were found guilty of lesser charges, including membership in a terrorist organization. The rest were acquitted.

When the acquittals were read, gasps filled the courthouse, packed with survivors, relatives and scores of journalists. Several relatives emerged weeping. They said they were furious and disappointed.

“I do not like that murderers are being let loose,” said Pilar Manjon, whose 20-year-old son was killed in the bomb blasts and who now leads a victims group.

“This is not about reprisals or vengeance,” added Jesus Rodriguez, who lost most of his hearing when he was trapped in a flaming train, “but society needs a solution, and this has not been made clear.”

Perhaps the most startling acquittal for some was that of Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, once described as a mastermind of the attack. He is now in an Italian prison and listened to the verdict by teleconference. He is serving an eight-year sentence after being convicted of belonging to a terrorist organization. Endika Zulueta, Ahmed’s attorney, argued that much of the evidence collected in Spain against his client was questionable. The case against Ahmed relied heavily on wiretaps conducted by Italian investigators that captured conversations that may have been translated incorrectly, Zulueta maintained.

In one of those conversations, investigators said, Ahmed claimed the Madrid bombings as his project. Other testimony suggested he was a braggart who played a minor role.

With the exception of Ahmed, defendants Wednesday sat in the courtroom behind bullet-proof glass.

During the trial, 90,000 pages of indictment, charges and supporting documents were amassed. Hundreds of witnesses and experts were called to testify, including senior intelligence agents whose faces were concealed.

Still, the three-judge National Court panel failed to establish “intellectual authors” behind the bombings, noting that seven suspected ringleaders killed themselves in April 2004, detonating a bomb as police moved in on their suburban apartment.

Two Moroccans received maximum penalties: Jamal Zougam, seen by witnesses on a train that blew up, was convicted of planting at least one bomb and of belonging to an Islamic terrorist cell; Othman Gnaoui was convicted of transporting explosives to Madrid and assisting the operational chief of the conspiracy, who was killed in the apartment explosion.

Emilio Suarez Trashorras of Spain, who once worked as a miner, was found guilty of supplying the explosives used in the bombs and received a similar sentence.

Four other major suspects -- Youssef Belhadj, Hassan Haski, Abdelmajid Bouchar and Rafa Zouhier -- were acquitted of murder but condemned to up to 18 years on lesser charges, including belonging to a terrorist organization.

Much of the evidence was circumstantial, making stronger convictions more difficult, several analysts said.

Lead judge Javier Gomez Bermudez, speaking for a unanimous court, also dismissed definitively the notion that Basque separatists of the ETA movement were involved in the bombings.

This was a theory that the right-wing Popular Party, in office at the time of the attacks, had promoted because acknowledging the culprits as Islamists made the party vulnerable to accusations that fervent support for the war in Iraq made Spain a target for Al Qaeda.

The Popular Party lost elections three days after the train blasts. The victorious Socialist Party, under Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, assumed office and quickly made good on a campaign promise to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq.

Zapatero on Wednesday praised the work of the court.

“Nothing can fill the void that [the victims] suffer, but today they can feel a bit of consolation and relief at having the truth established,” he said.

“The barbarism perpetrated on March 11, 2004, has left a deep imprint of pain on our collective memory, an imprint that stays with us as a homage to the victims.”

Pablo Ordaz, a journalist with the El Pais newspaper who has written a book on the bombings, said political squabbling around the trial undermined the pursuit of truth.

“It was a lost opportunity,” he said. “People, observers, the media, society as a whole were all distracted by stories and lies, when the interesting thing would have been to focus on this new kind of terrorism.”

After March, 2004, Spain significantly beefed up its security forces, improved coordination among agencies and established a counter-terrorism special unit that works with counterparts outside of Spain.

Whether the trial serves as the catharsis many Spaniards sought remains to be seen.

“I think this trial has been a model in its execution; it has taken place, all things considered, quite fast,” said Clara Escribano, a former nurse who was badly injured as she stood one subway door away from where one of the bombs exploded. “There’s no closure,” she said. “That will never happen. And we do not understand why this had to happen to us.”

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Timeline

A Spanish court Wednesday found 21 defendants guilty in the 2004 bombings of Madrid trains and acquitted seven others. Here are the key events:

March 11, 2004: Ten bombs kill 191 people and injure nearly 2,000 others on four rush-hour trains.

March 12: Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar links Basque separatist group ETA to the attacks.

March 14: Videotape purportedly from Al Qaeda says the Islamist group bombed the trains. ETA denies role. Voters throw out Aznar’s center-right government, bringing Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to power.

April 3: Sarhane Abdelmajid Fakhet, the suspected ringleader of bombers, and as many as six accomplices blow themselves up after police corner them in an apartment in Leganes, south of Madrid.

March 11, 2005: Islamic Commission of Spain issues order declaring that Osama bin Laden had forsaken Islam by backing attacks such as those in Madrid.

June 22: Parliamentary panel finds the Aznar government “manipulated and twisted” the bombings to try to win elections.

April 11, 2006: Prosecuting magistrate Juan Del Olmo orders 29 people, most Spaniards or Moroccans, to stand trial. His report concludes the bombers were inspired but not directed by Al Qaeda.

Feb. 15, 2007: Lead judge Javier Gomez Bermudez opens trial. One defendant is acquitted.

Oct. 31: The court finds 21 people guilty in the bombings, sentencing three to thousands of years in prison -- though under Spanish law they can serve only a maximum of 40 years. Court rules out the involvement of ETA in the bombings.

Source: Reuters


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