By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 1, 2007
BERLIN, Oct. 31 -- A Spanish court convicted 21 people Wednesday for their roles in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, but acquitted a lead suspect and six other defendants in a mixed verdict that did little to resolve outstanding questions about the deadliest attack by Islamic radicals in Europe.
The Spanish National Court in Madrid convicted three defendants -- two Moroccans and a Spaniard -- of mass murder and sentenced them to thousands of years in prison, although the maximum period they can spend behind bars under Spanish law is 40 years. Eighteen others received lesser sentences.
But a former Egyptian military officer who was accused of organizing the attacks -- and caught on tape bragging that he was responsible -- was found not guilty. And four other defendants described by prosecutors as ringleaders of the plot were acquitted of the most serious charges against them, prompting an outcry from relatives of people killed in the explosions that rocked Madrid's Atocha train station on March 11, 2004.
"We are going to appeal against this mistake," Pilar Manjon, whose 20-year-old son died, told reporters after the verdict was delivered. "I don't like to see killers walking free."
Prosecutors had asserted that the bombings, which killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,800, were organized by a cell composed mainly of Moroccan immigrants who wanted to force Spain to pull its military forces from Iraq. The attacks came three days before Spanish national elections. The bombings were cited as a factor in the victory of Prime Minister Jos¿ Luis Rodr¿guez Zapatero, who subsequently withdrew Spanish troops.
The simultaneous blasts from 10 backpack bombs left aboard commuter trains alarmed a country that had grown accustomed to smaller-scale terrorist attacks by Basque separatists but had not been considered a likely target for Islamic extremists. Although prosecutors and judges have long insisted that there is no evidence of involvement by Basque groups in the bombings, many Spaniards remain convinced that they played a role.
Spanish authorities said the plot was organized locally by a cell of Islamic ideologues that had no direct connections to al-Qaeda or other international networks. But they were unable to clarify who directed the conspiracy or gave the final orders for the attacks.
Investigators saw several leads dry up after seven suspects blew themselves up in April 2004 as police prepared to raid their hideout in a Madrid suburb. Three suspects eluded their grasp entirely, including a veteran Moroccan fighter thought to have played a key role in organizing the cell and two others who later died in suicide missions in Iraq.
Prosecutors thought they had achieved a breakthrough in May 2004 when Italian police secretly recorded the conversations of an Egyptian suspect, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed. According to transcripts prepared by Italian investigators, Ahmed told a roommate in Milan that "the Madrid bombings were my project, and those who died as martyrs there were my beloved friends."
Ahmed, a mysterious character known as "Mohamed the Egyptian," had spent time in Madrid before the bombings and eluded Spanish police before his arrest in Italy. But his attorneys disputed the translations of his wiretapped comments, made in Arabic, and he was acquitted by the Spanish court.
"In this case, justice was done," Ahmed's attorney in Madrid, Endika Zulueta, told reporters.
Ahmed remains imprisoned in Italy, where he is serving an eight-year sentence for membership in a terrorist organization. He watched the reading of the verdicts in Madrid on a video link from Milan and shouted, "I've been absolved!" as he broke down in tears, the Europa Press news agency reported.
The three defendants convicted of murder were Jamal Zougam, a purported ringleader accused of placing at least one bomb on a commuter train; Jos¿ Emilio Su¿rez Trashorras, a Spaniard who acquired the dynamite used in the attacks; and Otman el-Gnaoui, a Moroccan who helped transport the explosives.
Prime Minister Zapatero said the verdict was fair. "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," he said.