The trial of 29 suspects in the 2004 Madrid terrorist attacks opened Thursday under tight security, with survivors and mourners getting their first close-up look at the defendants accused of the train bombings that killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,800.
An Egyptian accused of being one of the masterminds of the attacks told the court he had no involvement in the bombings, despite intercepted conversations in which he allegedly bragged that he was the brains behind them.
"Your honor, I never had any relation to the events which occurred in Madrid," Rabei Osman said under questioning from his defense attorney on the first day of the trial.
He later condemned the attack.
"Obviously I condemn these attacks unconditionally and completely. This is a conviction I have very clearly and absolutely," Osman said. He spoke in Arabic and his words were translated into Spanish.
Osman was arrested in Milan, Italy, in June 2004 on a warrant from Spanish authorities. Of the 29 people who went on trial here Thursday, he is one of three accused of masterminding the attacks.
Italian prosecutors have said they tapped phone conversations in which Osman told an associate in Italy "I'm the thread to Madrid, it's my work."
Eighteen of the suspects watched the proceedings from a bulletproof chamber, while the other 11, who are out on bail, sat in the main section of the courtroom. Many of the suspects in the chamber averted their glances from victims’ relatives sitting in the small, heavily guarded courtroom, and some turned their backs to them.
All 29 defendants have pleaded not guilty.
Highly emotional trial
The trial promises to be highly emotional, dredging up terrifying memories of the attack, in which 10 backpack bombs ripped through four packed commuter trains. It has been called modern Spain’s most traumatic event since the civil war of the 1930s.
Some 100 experts and 600 witnesses are likely to be called, among them people who had their lives shattered in the March 11, 2004, blasts. Testimony is expected to last more than five months and a verdict is expected late October.
“I hope justice is rendered and that there is a worthy sentence,” Pilar Manjon, president of an association of March 11 victims, said before the proceedings got under way. She lost her 20-year-old son in the bombings.
Of the defendants, Manjon said: “I will look them right in the eye. They destroyed my life but they will not destroy me.”
Seven lead defendants face possible jail terms of 30 years for each of the 191 killings and 18 years apiece for 1,820 attempted murders. But under Spanish law the maximum time anyone can serve for a terrorist conviction is 40 years. There is no death penalty in Spain.
Homegrown cell of extremists
The trial marks the culmination of a lengthy probe which concluded that the attack was carried out by a homegrown cell of Muslim extremists angry about the then-conservative Spanish government’s support for the Iraq war. The cell was inspired by al-Qaida but had no direct links to it, nor did it receive financing from Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization, Spanish investigators say.
The proceedings will be held under tight security at a trade fair pavilion because the premises of the National Court, which handles terrorism cases, were deemed too small. Spain has increased its terrorism alert level as a precaution.
The prime suspects include Spaniard Emilio Trashorras, a former miner who is accused of supplying the dynamite used in the massacre; Moroccans Jamal Zougam and Abdelmajid Bouchar, who are accused of planting some of the bombs; and Moroccan Youssef Belhadj, who prosecutors believe made key decisions such as picking the day of the attack and giving the plotters last minute instructions.
Of 12 suspected ringleaders, only three will be in the courtroom. The rest are either dead or at large.