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9/11 suspects go on trial in Spain

By CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman

Madrid (Spain)
Osama Bin Laden

MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Three al Qaeda suspects charged with helping to plan the September 11 attacks in the United States have gone on trial in Madrid, along with 21 other suspects who allegedly belonged to the al Qaeda cell in Spain.

The trial of the 24 men -- mainly of Syrian and Moroccan origin -- is Spain's largest to date against Islamic terrorist suspects, and an extra-large courtroom on the outskirts of Madrid has been prepared to accommodate the trial.

The proceedings began Friday at 11:10 a.m. (0910 GMT), about 40 minutes behind schedule, and started with the reading of the charges against the suspects, who were seated behind a bulletproof-glassed section of the court room.

The judge adjourned the trial proceedings for the day at 1:35 p.m.

Germany is the only country so far to have convicted a suspect for the 9/11 attacks, but Moroccan-born Mounir el Motassadeq won an appeal and is being tried again.

Spanish court documents said two key suspects on trial "provided cover in Spain for members of the commando that carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks."

They are Syrian-born Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, 42 -- the alleged al Qaeda leader in Spain -- and a man considered to be his aide, Moroccan-born Driss Chebli, 33.

The indictment alleges they provided logistical aid for a meeting in July 2001 near Barcelona, two months before the attacks in the United States, that brought together Mohammed Atta, the pilot of the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center and Ramzi Binalshibh, a suspected key plotter who has been in U.S. custody since 2002.

The 9/11 Commission Report issued in the United States devotes several pages to what it calls "the meeting in Spain" between Atta and Binalshibh, who was an alleged courier between Osama bin Laden and the hijackers, but the report makes no mention of the men who are on trial now in Spain.

The third suspect in the Madrid trial directly implicated in the 9/11 attacks is Syrian-born Ghasoub Al Abrash Ghayoun, age 39.

The indictment said he videotaped the World Trade Center and numerous other U.S. landmarks, including San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, on a trip in 1997 when he posed as a tourist. The tapes later were delivered to al Qaeda suspects and allegedly served as preliminary information for the attacks.

These three prime suspects in the trial, if convicted, face sentences of more than 60,000 years each in prison, based on the maximum sentences for the murders of each of the fatal victims of the 9/11 attacks.

They have proclaimed their innocence, as have the 21 other suspects, who face sentences of nine to 27 years for belonging to a terrorist group and in some cases, for weapons, forgery and fraud charges.

Perhaps the best known defendant is Tayseer Allouni, 50, a correspondent for the Arabic-language Al Jazeera television network who had an exclusive interview with Osama bin Laden less than two months after the September 11 attacks.

The indictment charges that he secretly aided al Qaeda as well, by carrying funds for terrorist elements and providing other logistical aid, mainly before he became associated with al Jazeera. He faces nine years in prison if convicted, and has been backed by his TV network in proclaiming his innocence.

Judge Baltasar Garzon began investigating Islamic terrorism in Spain in the 1990s, years before the Madrid train bombings in March 2004 that killed 191 and wounded more than 1,500.

Arrests of the suspects on trial now began shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and Garzon issued an indictment against 35 suspects, including Osama bin Laden, in September 2003, later expanding it to 41 suspects. But the 24 who go on trial are the only ones of the group who are in Spanish custody.

Some of the suspects on trial also have an alleged link to suspects in the train bombings. That trial is not expected to start before late this year.

Garzon's indictment portrays a cell of al Qaeda operatives who blended in with Spain's ever increasing population of Muslim immigrants. But secretly, he charged, the suspects were acquiring funds for al Qaeda, providing housing and logistical support, and recruiting young warriors to wage holy war in battlegrounds such as Afghanistan or Bosnia.

The case will be tried by a three-judge panel, but prosecutors may have a difficult time proving the charges, said Ely Karmon, an expert on global terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzlia, Israel.

"One of the problems of all these arrests is that it's mostly circumstantial evidence," Karmon told CNN in a phone interview. "The suspects spoke on the phone, and they didn't speak much. They spoke in code."

He said that suspects on trial apparently have not revealed much information to Spanish authorities since their arrests.

Court documents show that several of the pre-trial motions by the defendants have sought to question evidence gathered by police wiretaps and other surveillance methods, challenging the accuracy of translations into Spanish of Arabic-language conversations.

The defendants will be represented by 20 defense lawyers. All remain in jail except for Allouni, who has been released for health reasons.

The trial is scheduled to last at least two months.

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