A2 Alabiso  /  AP
Kamel Hamraoui is escorted by Italian policemen as he arrives Wednesday at court in Brescia, northern Italy. Judge Silvia Milesi convicted Hamraoui and Mohamed Rafik to four years and eight months of prison for belonging to an extremist cell alleged to have planned attacks in Italy.
updated 7/13/2005 10:02:29 PM ET 2005-07-14T02:02:29

A judge convicted two men on Wednesday of belonging to an extremist cell alleged to have planned terrorist attacks in Italy against Milan’s subway and a 12th-century cathedral in a nearby northern city, among other locations.

A third suspect was convicted of a lesser charge, while a fourth was acquitted.

All defendants denied the charges, and those convicted are expected to appeal the ruling.

The trial in Brescia, about 60 miles east of Milan, drew to a close amid renewed fears of an attack in Italy and increased security across the country after the London bombings last week.

Earlier Wednesday, police carried out raids against suspected Islamic extremists, conducting about 200 searches across the nation and questioning 174 people, the Interior Ministry said. No arrests were reported. The ministry said the questioning focused on their legal status in Italy, and might lead to expulsions from the country in some cases.

Nationwide raids
The raids were carried out in cities across Italy, including Milan, Rome, Naples, Turin and Bologna.

Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu, speaking in Brussels during an EU emergency meeting to assess the bloc’s security measures, said the raids were part of a preventive strategy, according to the Apcom news agency.

Moroccan Mohamed Rafik was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison and Tunisian Kamel Hamraoui to three years and four months. Prosecutors had asked for nine years for Rafik and four years and six months for Hamraoui.

Tunisian Najib Rouass, was sentenced to one year and two months on the lesser charge of inciting violence while Tunisian Romdhane Ben Othmane Khir was acquitted.

Balanced ruling’
The four defendants in Brescia had been granted at their request a fast-track trial that allows for lesser sentences if suspects are convicted. Prosecutor Roberto Di Martino described the verdict as a “balanced ruling.”

Six other North Africans, believed to have belonged to the same cell, are being tried in Cremona, 60 miles southeast of Milan.

Among them is Moroccan Ahmed El Bouhali, who disappeared in 2001 and was considered by investigators the cell’s leader. He is being tried in absentia.

Investigators have said the cell was connected to international terrorist networks for which it raised money, faked identity documents and recruited extremists to fight abroad.

Duomo a target?
Members of the cell also discussed attacking Milan’s subway and Cremona’s cathedral, the Duomo, a 12th century structure in the heart of the city.

Di Martino, the prosecutor, said the cell was believed to also have contacts with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.

Officials said the verdict was one of the first convictions under Italy’s international terrorism charge, which allows for stiffer sentences and was enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

The ANSA news agency said the only previous conviction on the charge was the result of a plea bargain. Prosecutors have sought sentences under the charge for many other suspects who have either been acquitted or sentenced on lesser charges.

Most of Italy’s anti-terrorist probes have been based in northern Italy, especially in and around the Milan area.

Both Rafik and Hamraoui were arrested in 2003 as part of their investigation into the alleged extremist cell, based in Cremona. Rafik, who has lived in Italy since 1998, served as imam in Florence before moving to Cremona, and was considered a key suspect.

Rafik is alleged to have ties to the Muslim extremist movement Salafia Jihadia, which Moroccan officials have blamed for the May 16, 2003, bombings in Casablanca that killed 45 people. He denied any involvement.

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