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27 years for al Qaeda 'cell leader'

From Al Goodman
CNN Madrid Bureau Chief

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Spain
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September 11 attacks

MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- A suspected al Qaeda cell leader has been convicted in a Madrid court in connection with the September 11 terrorist attacks and sentenced to 27 years in prison.

Two other suspected al Qaeda members were acquitted of charges they helped plot the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, the accused cell leader, was sentenced to 15 years on charges of conspiracy in the attacks and 12 years for being a leader of a terrorist group.

The court cleared him of being an accomplice to murder in connection with the attacks. Yarkas, 42, faced nearly 75,000 years in prison if convicted on those charges -- 25 years for each of the nearly 3,000 fatalities in the 9/11 attacks.

The Spanish court also found al Jazeera television reporter Taysir Alony guilty of collaboration with al Qaeda and sentenced him to seven years in jail. Alony was not charged in connection with 9/11.

Yarkas, Alony and the 22 other defendants were expressionless Monday as the verdicts were read out in Spain's National Court at the conclusion of Europe's biggest trial of al Qaeda suspects.

The Syrian-born Alony, 50, was probably the best known of the defendants due to his interview with Osama bin Laden shortly after 9/11.

Prosecutors said Alony carried funds for al Qaeda. Alony professed his innocence in court.

Al Jazeera Editor-in-Chief Ahmed Sheikh called Alony's conviction and sentence "regrettable and unfair" and said the case against the reporter was "politically motivated from the beginning."

The trial lasted from April 22 to July 5. The defendants were mainly of Syrian and Moroccan origin, although a number have Spanish citizenship or residency status.

A three-judge panel of the National Court heard the case in a special courthouse under tight security. The evidence included testimony of 107 witnesses -- more than half of them police officers.

Authorities have linked some of the defendants to the perpetrators of last year's Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people. Indictments in the train bombings could come next month, with a separate trial to follow.

The court acquitted two suspected al Qaeda members of charges they helped plot the 9/11 attacks -- Moroccan-born Driss Chebli, 33, and Syrian-born Ghasoub Al Abrash Ghalyoun, 39.

But it convicted Chebli of collaborating with a terrorist group and sentenced him to six years in prison.

Prosecutors said Yarkas and Chebli -- considered to be an aide to the alleged cell leader -- provided logistical aid for a crucial meeting in July 2001 near Barcelona between Mohamed Atta and Ramzi Binalshibh.

Atta was the pilot of the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center. Binalshibh is a suspected plotter who has been in U.S. custody since 2002.

The U.S. 9/11 Commission Report devoted several pages to what it called "the meeting in Spain" between Atta and Binalshibh, who was an alleged courier between bin Laden and the hijackers. The report does not mention any of the men who were tried in Spain.

Prosecutors also alleged that Yarkas participated in a cryptic telephone call from London two weeks before the 9/11 attacks in which a man whose alias is Shakur said he had "entered the field of aviation" and "the throat of the bird has been slit." The phone call has allegedly been linked to the attacks.

During his testimony, Yarkas insisted that Shakur liked to make jokes and that the wiretapped conversation had nothing to do with what prosecutors alleged.

Spain is seeking to extradite from Britain a man named Farid Hilali, whom authorities have identified as Shakur.

Ghalyoun, the third key defendant, made videotapes of the World Trade Center towers and other U.S. landmarks while touring five U.S. cities in 1997.

Portions of the New York tapes were shown at the trial. Prosecutors allege they were scouting tapes for 9/11 and were passed on to al Qaeda.

But Ghalyoun testified he showed the tapes only to his wife and that he made no copies for anyone.

Worldwide, only one conviction has held up in court for anyone linked to the 9/11 attacks.

In April 2005, Zacarias Moussaoui pleaded guilty to all six counts of a U.S. federal government indictment that accused him of a terrorism conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks.

Moussaoui has admitted to being an al Qaeda member, attending a terrorist training camp, undergoing flight training and knowing unspecified 9/11 plotters.

But he contends he played no role in the 9/11 attacks. A French national of Moroccan heritage, Moussaoui was arrested in the United States a month before the attacks. He faces life in prison or the death penalty.

In 2001 in Germany, Moroccan-born Mounir el-Motassadeq became the first person convicted of anything related to the 9/11 attacks, but his conviction was overturned in 2004.

He was convicted in a retrial in Hamburg last month, but only of membership in a terrorist organization. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Also in Germany, Moroccan-born Abdelgani Mzoudi was acquitted of charges of accessory to murder and membership in a terrorist group in February 2004 due to lack of evidence. Mzoudi never denied knowing Atta.

CNN's Phil Hirschkorn in New York contributed to this story.

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