3 get heavy sentences in Madrid train bombings

Posted in Terrorism | 31-Oct-07 | Author: Victoria Burnett| Source: International Herald Tribune

Some of the 28 suspects who were accused in the commuter train bombings of 2004 waited for the verdicts Wednesday at the National Court in Madrid.

MADRID: The National Court on Wednesday handed down sentences that stretched to tens of thousands of years to three men for killing 191 people and wounding more than 1,800 in the bombing of Madrid commuter trains on March 11, 2004.

But the court acquitted four of the top suspects of murder and did not convict any of the three alleged masterminds of direct involvement in the terror attacks, the worst by Islamic radicals on European soil.

The court acquitted 7 suspects and found 18 guilty of lesser charges related to the attacks, such as belonging to a terrorist organization. Sentences ranged from three to 43,000 years - although under Spanish law the most time they can spend in jail is 40 years. One defendant was released during the trial for lack of evidence.

The verdict closed a vast, complex trial that over five months brought 29 defendants, nearly 50 lawyers and 350 witnesses to a temporary courtroom on the outskirts of Madrid.

It offered the first taste of justice to those wounded in the attacks and to the relatives of those killed when 13 sports bags stuffed with explosives and nails tore through trains carrying thousands of people to the center of the city.

"Today justice has been rendered," Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said in a statement.

The verdict disappointed some Spaniards, however, who said prosecutors had produced sufficient evidence to convict many of the main suspects of inspiring, planning or executing the attacks. Pilar Manjón, head of the Association for Victims of the 11-M, a victims' support group, asserted that the sentences were "soft" and that the group would appeal, news agencies reported.

[Some victims and relatives of those killed in the bombings questioned why no one had been convicted of plotting the attacks and said the sentences imposed on the guilty were too short, Reuters reported. Isabel Presa, who lost her youngest son in one of the explosions, shook as she spoke of her disgust. "I'm not a judge or a lawyer, but this is shameful, outrageous," she said before breaking down in tears.]

Counterterrorism experts said the verdict underscored the difficulty of building a solid case against suspected Islamists who are accused of providing inspiration or direction to foot soldiers and who belong to diffuse groups with no formal structure.

The bombings were carried out by a group of Islamists who intersected with a band of Moroccan petty criminals whose ringleader, Jamal Ahmidan, had become radicalized in a Moroccan prison. Seven suspects, including Ahmidan, blew themselves up in a Madrid apartment after they were surrounded by the police three weeks after the attacks; four other suspects fled.

The counterterrorism experts said the judgment reflected a range of challenges faced by the police and judges as they seek to jail international terrorists: the preponderance of circumstantial evidence rather than concrete proof; problems with evidence translated from Arabic; the absence of confessions - none of the 28 defendants confessed; and unreliable witnesses.

"It is a point of pride to be able to try people in a courtroom, with full constitutional guarantees," said Fernando Reinares, an expert at the Royal Elcano Institute in international terrorism. "But in Spain there is space for debate about whether we need to adapt our judicial legislation and culture to confront international Islamist terrorism."

Javier Gómez Bermúdez, the head of the tribunal, sentenced Jamal Zougam, a 34-year-old Moroccan who witnesses said they saw on one of the bombed trains, to more than 30,000 years in prison on charges that included murder, attempted murder and belonging to an "armed group." Zougam owned a shop where most of the cellphone cards used to detonate the explosives were bought.

Gómez gave similar sentences to Otman el-Gnaoui, 32 - another Moroccan who was convicted of helping to transport the explosives used in the attacks - and to José Emilio Suárez Trashorras, 30, a Spaniard who was a "necessary accomplice." A former miner from northern Spain, he supplied the stolen dynamite used in the bombings in exchange for drugs, the court said.

The tribunal acquitted Rabei Osman, who was accused of being one of the masterminds of the attacks and was convicted in Italy last year of belonging to a terrorist organization. The other alleged masterminds, Hassan el Haski and Youssef Belhadj, were acquitted of that charge and convicted simply of belonging to a terrorist organization.

In his reasoning, Gómez said tapes of telephone conversations that were provided as evidence against Osman, tapes made by the Italian police, did not prove his participation in the plot. The Italian wiretaps, in which prosecutors said Osman boasted that he was "the thread behind the Madrid plot," were disputed by Spanish translators.

Endika Zulueta, Osman's attorney, said there was no proof against his client. "The prosecutors said he was an Islamist, very radical, very religious," Zulueta said by telephone. "But you cannot be condemned for your personality in a democracy."

The prosecutors did not get the murder conviction they sought for Abdelmajid Bouchar, 24, a Moroccan whom one witness said he saw leaving one of the trains. Bouchar was sentenced to 12 years in prison for belonging to a terrorist organization and 6 years for possessing explosives.

Bouchar's DNA was found at the farm outside Madrid where the bombs were put together and on pieces of garbage found outside the Madrid apartment where the bombers blew themselves up.

The prosecutors also failed to get a murder conviction for Rafa Zouhier, 28, a former drug-dealer and night-club bouncer who acted as an intermediary in the sale of explosives from a mine in Asturias to the bombers.

Reinares, the terrorism analyst, said the judge appeared to have been very strict in his definition of admissible evidence. "It seems he has not admitted the extraordinary mass of circumstantial evidence," he said. "This kind of evidence is crucial when you are trying members of a nebulous group of international terrorists."

Manuel Torres, director of Athena Intelligence, a research group that monitors Islamist activity, said the Spanish legal system was primed to combat hierarchical, disciplined terrorist organizations like ETA, the militant Basque separatist group. "The idea of rings within rings and hierarchies is useful for the police or judiciary, but in reality the structures are much less rigid," Torres said in a telephone interview before the verdict. "We are applying old concepts to new realities."

For many Spaniards, the trial was an important process that discredited, for once and for all, the suggestion that ETA, the Basque separatist group, played a role in the bombings. The theory of ETA involvement, espoused by some hard-line conservatives, was raised often during the five-month trial.

José Maria Aznar, the prime minister at the time of the attacks, immediately blamed ETA and stuck by his assertion for three days, despite mounting evidence that the bombs were the work of Islamists. His stance, and the fact that many Spaniards felt they were being punished for the nation's support of the United States in the Iraq war, tipped voters against Aznar's conservative Popular Party, which lost elections on March 14, 2004.

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