A Spanish court found 21 men guilty yesterday of carrying out the worst terror attack in Europe, the multiple train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 and injured more than 1,800 on 11 March, 2004. But judges acquitted the man accused of being the organiser of the carnage.
As emotional scenes played out among the families of the victims, the court found three men guilty of mass murder and attempted murder, and sentenced them to individual jail terms of between 34,000 and 43,000 years. Four other prime suspects received lesser sentences.
But there were gasps of surprise when the man accused of masterminding the attacks, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, known as "Mohamed the Egyptian", was acquitted. Rabei Osman is serving a jail term in Italy for belonging to a terrorist organisation and followed proceedings on a video link. Intercepted phonecalls in which he allegedly boasted of orchestrating the rush-hour bombings were ruled to have been mistranslated.
Two Moroccans – Jamal Zougam and Othman el Gnaoui – were both sentenced to 30 years for each of 191 cases of terrorist murder and 20 years for each of the 1,824 attempted murders. They were also convicted of belonging to a terrorist organisation. The third man sentenced to 43,000 years was the only Spaniard, Emilio Suarez Trashorras, a former miner who helped supply the dynamite that bombers stuffed into sports bags and left on four commuter trains heading into Atocha terminal.
Under Spanish law, prisoners can serve at most 40 years.
Four other lead suspects – Youssef Belhadj, Hassan el Haski, Abdulmajid Bouchar and Rafa Zouhier – were acquitted of murder but sentenced to between 10 and 18 years for charges including belonging to a terrorist organisation or arms trafficking. Fourteen others were found guilty on lesser charges.
But the seven acquittals sparked expressions of grief and anger among the black-clad representatives of victims' families in the courtroom. "The killers are walking free," said spokeswoman Pilar Manjon, who lost her 20-year-old son in the bombing. "The verdict seems feeble, and we will appeal to the Supreme Court." Other relatives, some accompanied by psychologists, wept and condemned the verdict as a bitter disappointment.
The accused sat impassively in an armoured plate-glass dock, listening through headphones while the presiding judge Javier Gomez Bermudez read a summary of the verdict.
Prosecutors said the bombers were inspired by al-Qa'ida radical Islamists, but the name al-Qa'ida was barely spoken yesterday, reflecting the court's inability to pin ideological responsibility on any individual or organisation. Those condemned were sent down on the strength of material proof linking them to the attacks – finger prints, genetic traces, mobile phone numbers, traces of explosives. Religious or political motivations hovered on the margins of the case but did not form part of the proof.
Emilio Trashorras, the only Spaniard to receive the maximum sentence, was convicted of stealing dynamite from a mine and trafficking it to the bombers via intermediaries in exchange for cocaine – a criminal, rather than a political operation.
"Today, justice has been done. We must move forward and strengthen the relations between us all," the Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said. Addressing victims' families, he said: "Nothing can make up for the loss, but now their suffering can be alleviated by knowing the truth of what happened and who did it." But for a nation glued to the radio and television , the verdict only partially satisfied the desire for justice. "There aren't many heavy sentences considering how many people were affected," said Eutiquio Gutierrez, whose 39-year-old daughter died in the bombing.
The truth is the top masterminds never came to court. Seven men suspected of inspiring and organising the bombings blew themselves up to escape a police ambush three weeks after the attack took place. Others fled, subsequently to die in suicide attacks in Afghanistan or Iraq.
The verdict did, however, rule out participation by Eta Basque separatists but many Spaniards still believe Eta was involved.
Victims were awarded compensation ranging from €30,000 (£20,000) to €1.5m. All the accused pleaded innocent and those who were convicted are expected to appeal.