A Spanish court on Wednesday convicted 21 people of involvement in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, but acquitted a man accused of helping mastermind the al-Qaeda-inspired attack that claimed nearly 200 lives.
The early-morning bombings on four packed commuter trains on March 11 2004 were the deadliest terror attacks in the West since the September 11 2001 strikes against the United States.
The Chief Judge of the special anti-terrorist court, Javier Gomez Bermudez, handed out the heaviest sentences to two Moroccans — Jamal Zougam and Othman el-Gnaoui — and a Spaniard, Jose Emilio Suarez Trashorras.
They received about 40Ã‚Â 000 years in prison each, although under Spanish law the maximum they can spend behind bars is 40 years.
Zougam placed bombs aboard one of the four targeted trains, while el-Gnaoui and Trashorras were condemned respectively for supplying and transporting the explosives.
One of the alleged organisers of the attacks, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, also known as ”Mohammed the Egyptian”, was acquitted on all charges along with six other defendants.
Two other alleged ringleaders received sentences of less than 20 years in prison for belonging to a terrorist organisation.
A total of 28 defendants were on trial — 19 mostly North African Arabs living in Spain and nine Spaniards, including one woman, charged with providing the explosives used in the bombings.
Lawyers for the convicted now have five days to announce whether they intend to appeal against the verdicts to Spain’s Supreme Court.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero welcomed the verdicts. ”Today justice was done and we must now look to the future, strengthening coexistence,” he said. ”The barbaric acts committed on March 11 left a deep pain, which stays with us as a homage to the victims.”
But the head of an association for families of the victims condemned the verdicts. ”We are going to appeal this mistake,” said Pilar Manjon, who lost her 20-year-old son in the attacks. ”I don’t like to see killers walking free.”
Other relatives also expressed disappointment. ”It’s a feeble judgement; most of the accused will be out on the street in one or two months,” said Carlos Jerria, a Chilean whose son-in-law was killed.
”There are far too few guilty verdicts for such a horrible crime,” said Maria Jose Guttierez, a Spaniard who lost her sister in the bombings.
Gomez Bermudez announced compensation for the victims and their families of between Ã¢,Â¬30Ã‚Â 000 and Ã¢,Â¬1,5-million.
Tight security was in force for the verdict, with dozens of armed police wearing bullet-proof vests surrounding the court in the west of the capital. An armoured car with a machine gun was also parked outside the building, as a helicopter hovered overhead.
Claims of innocence
During the four-month trial, which wrapped up on July 2, all of the accused said they were innocent and denied having any link to radical Islam or al-Qaeda.
But several of the defendants were contradicted by witnesses who said they saw them leaving rucksacks on the trains on the day of the bombings or by the discovery of traces of their DNA at key sites of the attacks.
Most of the accused said they knew some of seven suspected masterminds of the attacks who blew themselves up at a suburban Madrid apartment three weeks after the bombings as police closed in.
Zougam was one of the first suspects to be arrested. Police were able to trace the SIM card of a cellphone that was attached to one of the train bombs that did not explode to a shop run by the Moroccan.
The string of 10 bombs exploded on commuter trains on March 11 2004, leaving bodies and limbs scattered on railway tracks. A total of 191 people from 13 countries were killed and 1Ã‚Â 841 others injured.
The conservative government in power at the time initially blamed the armed Basque separatist group ETA, but evidence quickly began to point to Islamic radicals angered over Madrid’s decision to send troops to back the US-led war in Iraq.
The attack was claimed later that day by the al-Qaeda terror network of Osama bin Laden.
The opposition Socialists scored a surprise victory in a general election three days after the bombings, aided by the perception that the ruling Popular Party had tried to cover up evidence that Islamic radicals were behind the bombings.
Zapatero promptly fulfilled a campaign promise to withdraw Spain’s troops from Iraq. — Sapa-AFP