Trial begins in Madrid train bombings

29 men are charged in attacks that killed 191 and wounded 1,800

February 16, 2007|By Tracy Wilkinson and Cristina Mateo-Yanguas | Tracy Wilkinson and Cristina Mateo-Yanguas,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MADRID, Spain -- Under heavy guard and shielded by bulletproof glass, 29 men charged in one of Europe's worst attacks faced survivors and the families of the nearly 200 dead for the first time yesterday.

The carnage of March 11, 2004, traumatized a nation and upended Spanish politics. But many here hope a trial, which began yesterday, will somehow help heal the scars.

Bombs ripped through four commuter trains during Madrid's morning rush hour, killing 191 people and wounding more than 1,800 others. It was the first time al-Qaida-linked attacks had hit European soil, shedding new light on the existence of militant networks prepared to commit egregious violence.

Yesterday's proceedings, televised live to a national audience, opened with questioning of a key defendant often portrayed as a mastermind behind the attacks. Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, an Egyptian, was arrested in Milan three months after the bombings and purportedly boasted of his role in the conspiracy.

Ahmed, took the stand in the hushed courtroom and, for several hours, refused to answer questions from prosecutors.

Later, however, he agreed to respond to his attorney and denied responsibility for the bombings.

"Your honor, I never had any relation to the events which occurred in Madrid," he testified.

"Obviously I condemn these attacks unconditionally and completely. This is a conviction I have very clearly and absolutely," he testified in Arabic. "I have never had any ties to al-Qaida nor to any Islamic organization. ... Thank God, I am a Muslim, but I practice my religion in a normal way, not an extremist way."

Also known as "Mohammed the Egyptian," Ahmed is one of three men whom prosecutors accuse of planning and organizing the attacks.

Seven of the principal suspects in the case killed themselves three weeks after the bombings when they blew up their suburban Madrid apartment building as police closed in.

Most of the people standing trial are Arab or North African Muslims; nine are non-Muslim Spaniards.

Charges range from mass murder to terrorist association and supplying the explosives used to blow up the trains.

Law enforcement authorities have long considered Ahmed key, both in the Madrid bombings and in the building of jihadi networks used to recruit and send fighters from Europe to Iraq.

Italian law enforcement authorities who tracked Ahmed for months before arresting him bugged his apartment and intercepted his telephone calls and e-mail messages. In one intercept, according to transcripts included in the indictment, he praises the Madrid suspects who died "martyrs" and wishes he could join them.

"The entire Madrid operation was mine," he tells a colleague. "The thread of the operation in Madrid was mine, you understand? The trains. ..."

Prosecutors hold that conversation up as a confession. In court yesterday, Ahmed's attorney, Endika Zulueta, asked that the recordings of the eavesdropped statements be provided to an interpreter working for the defense so that the translations could be verified. Judge Javier Gomez Bermudez agreed to Zulueta's request.

Survivors and relatives who entered the courtroom said they felt a rush of contradictory emotions, including relief that the trial had finally begun and doubt over whether their anguish could be assuaged or their quest for justice sated.

The trial is expected to last four to six months, with the three-judge panel expected to deliver its verdicts in the fall. The sheer size of the legal undertaking is enormous: More than 600 witnesses and 100 experts are due to be called to testify, and the indictment and supporting documents run more than 90,000 pages.

The defendants with the most serious charges, including Ahmed, could face sentences totaling nearly 39,000 years because of multiple counts of murder and attempted murder. Under Spanish law, however, the sentence would be capped at 40 years. There is no death penalty in Spain.

Spaniards know they are under the spotlight with this trial, and authorities said they were confident the judiciary is up to the task. European courts in general have had a hard time convicting terrorism suspects.

Tracy Wilkinson and Cristina Mateo-Yanguas write for the Los Angeles Times.

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