A Spanish court on Monday convicted and sentenced a Syrian-born man to 27 years in prison for conspiring with al Qaeda and the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, alias Abu Dahdah, was one of 18 found guilty among 24 defendants on charges of cooperating with al Qaeda.
The men were accused of participating in a Spain-based cell, under the alleged leadership of Yarkas, that raised money and recruited fighters for radical Islamic causes in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Indonesia. Yarkas and two others faced charges connected to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Prosecutors presented evidence that Yarkas and Driss Chebli, a Moroccan, coordinated a key meeting in Spain with the lead Sept. 11 hijacker two months before the attacks.
Chebli received a six-year prison sentence on a charge of collaborating with a terrorist organization. Ghasoub Abrash Ghayoun, a Syrian who videotaped the World Trade Center and other key landmarks in the United States, was acquitted. He insisted he shot the footage as a tourist.
Tayssir Alouni, a journalist with the Arabic-language television network al-Jazeera, was sentenced to seven years in prison. Prosecutors used an interview that Alouni conducted in 2001 with Osama bin Laden as evidence that he had a link to al Qaeda.
Al-Jazeera sharply criticized the conviction, and Alouni denied the charge. "This is a black day for the Spanish judiciary, which has deviated from all the norms of international justice," said Ahmed Sheik, al-Jazeera's editor-in-chief, according to the Reuters news agency.
Prosecutors had sought 74,000 years apiece in prison for Yarkas, Chebli and Ghayoun, representing 25 years for each of the almost 3,000 people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Yarkas and Chebli were accused of coordinating a meeting in July 2001 in Tarragona, Spain, where the lead Sept. 11 hijacker, Mohamed Atta, purportedly met with Ramzi Binalshibh and Mohamed Belfatmi, who are suspected of aiding the hijackers, to finalize plans for the attacks.
"The existence of a terrorist cell is an invention," Yarkas said at the end of the trial. The relationships between the accused came about naturally, he said, because "we've been living here for 20 years, we come from the same country, we have the same religion and the same customs."
The National Court found evidence that Yarkas "knew of the sinister plans . . . and took them on as his own, being punctually informed of the preparations which preceded the attacks carried out on the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York and against the Pentagon."
But it concluded in its 400-plus-page summary that while Yarkas's conspiracy in the plans was proved, his participation in the material acts themselves was not.
The "macro-trial," as it was dubbed in Spain, was one of the first international cases involving individuals accused of participating in the Sept. 11 attacks.
In clear reference to the United States, the lead prosecutor, Pedro Rubira, called in his closing arguments this summer for "an exemplary sentence which shows that neither wars nor detention camps are necessary in the fight against Islamic terrorism."
Defense attorneys insisted there was a lack of evidence in the government's case. "Anyone who has seen this trial knows there was no proof to condemn these people," said Yarkas's defense attorney, Jacobo Teijelo, who maintained that his client did not attend the meeting in Tarragona and had not been in the city. "My options now are either to appeal or to renounce this farce of a trial," Teijelo said.
The accused, most of whom sat in an enclosed glass box inside the courtroom, remained impassive as the verdicts were read out, a marked difference from their varyingly angry and emotional responses to questioning during the trial.
Family members, friends and colleagues reacted emotionally as they crowded a corridor outside the courtroom, which was removed from Madrid's city center and specially redesigned for terrorism cases. Of the 24 men on trial, 17 were from Syria and four from Morocco.
"From what I have seen, there seems to be some circumstantial evidence which might lead one to think that some of the defendants at least may be guilty," said Michael Ellman, who was preparing a report on the trial for the Arab Commission for Human Rights. But, he added, "I haven't seen anything which would enable a conviction to be brought."