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Madrid bombings trial: Key defendant refuses to testify

Story Highlights

NEW: One of the key defendants refuses to testify at the Madrid trial
• Trial comes nearly three years after blasts killed 191 people, wounded 1,800
• Prosecutors accuse locally based Islamic terrorists, inspired by al Qaeda
• All 29 of the accused were indicted last April and all profess innocence
From Al Goodman
CNN Madrid Bureau Chief
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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- The trial in the Madrid train bombing is under way, nearly three years after terrorists killed 191 people and wounded 1,800 on morning rush-hour commuter trains in the Spanish capital.

The trial began Thursday with a key defendant refusing to give evidence.

Twenty-nine defendants, including many Moroccans, are in the dock. Prosecutors say locally based Islamic terrorists, inspired by al Qaeda, carried out the attack, aided by some Spaniards accused of trafficking in explosives that ended up in the hands of the Islamic suspects.

Seven defendants are considered prime suspects, and each would face sentences of about 38,000 years in prison for mass murder, if convicted, according to a prosecution order issued last November. The rest face lesser charges. (Watch details of the case and evidence in the Madrid bombings)

Among the prime defendants are three men thought to be among the ideologues of the attacks. Prosecutors identified them as Youssef Belhadj, 30, and Hassan el Haski, 43, both of Morocco, and Rabei Osman El Sayed Ahmed, 35, of Egypt.

Ahmed, also known as "Mohammed the Egyptian," is accused of orchestrating the attacks.

He was first to take the stand Thursday but refused to give evidence.

"I know nothing about these accusations," Ahmed said through an interpreter. "With all respect, I am not going to answer any questions even from my lawyer."

Three other defendants are suspected of putting some of the bombs on the four trains that were torn apart by the explosions. They were identified as Jamal Zougam, 33, and Abdelmajid Bouchar, 24, both of Morocco, and Basel Ghalyoun, 26, of Syria.

The seventh prime defendant is Jose Emilio Suarez Trashorras, 30, of Spain, considered a "necessary cooperator" in the attacks by allegedly facilitating the explosives that were manufactured in Spain and stolen from a mine in the north.

Spanish law prohibits the death penalty, and even if convicted on all charges, the defendants would serve no more than 40 years in prison, according to Spanish law, the prosecution said.

All 29 were indicted last April and all profess innocence, court officials and some of their lawyers told CNN.

The coordinated bombings of four trains on March 11, 2004, was the deadliest terrorist attack in Western Europe since the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people.

Under tight security, a three-judge panel of the National Court are hearing the case in a special courthouse on the western outskirts of Madrid. Four cameras, controlled by the court, are providing live broadcast pictures of the trial.

The trial, with hundreds of witnesses, is expected to last until the summer, and a verdict could come by autumn.

Spain's Interior Ministry increased the nation's alert status this week from low to medium, bringing increased police patrols at public places such as transit stations. (Full story)

"There's always an increased threat when you broadcast worldwide a trial and you show to the last corner of the Earth that terrorism has a firm response from the courts in a state of law," chief prosecutor Javier Zaragoza said in an interview with Spanish TV Cuatro.

Western officials tell CNN that Spain remains under threat and that Spanish authorities have dozens of hard-core Islamic radicals under surveillance.

Spanish police have arrested 200 Islamic terrorist suspects in the country since the bombings, for various alleged plots.

Spaniard among seven prime suspects

The seven prime suspects for whom prosecutors seek the longest prison terms include six suspected Islamic terrorists and a seventh man, born in Spain, who is accused of leading the group of Spaniards that allegedly provided the others with explosives used in the attacks.

The nearly 38,000-year terms being sought were calculated based on the murder charges against the seven prime defendants for each of the 191 people who died in the attacks and for the attempted murders of the 1,824 others who were wounded, said the prosecution order issued last November.

The other 22 defendants are mainly suspected Islamic terrorists but also included various Spaniards alleged to have been involved in explosives trafficking. They would face prison terms of four to 27 years if convicted of supporting roles in the attacks, according to the prosecution order.

Eighteen of the 29 defendants are in pre-trial prison and will be brought under police escort to the courthouse and seated in a bulletproof glass enclosure in the courtroom.

The other 11, accused of lesser roles, will be seated in a special section of open court, because they are free on provisional liberty, with the condition that they report regularly to authorities.

Most of the 29 will have court-appointed lawyers because they could not afford a private defense attorney, said Eduardo Garcia Pena, a court-appointed lawyer who represents one defendant and is also the spokesman for all of the court-appointed lawyers.

Seven other key suspects in the bombings blew themselves up three weeks after the attacks in 2004 as police closed in on their hideout in a Madrid suburb. The seven dead suspects also were thought to have placed bombs aboard the trains, the prosecution order said.

A police officer died in the explosion at the hideout, on April 3, 2004, and many Spaniards consider him to be the 192nd victim of the attacks.

Alleged roots of attack detailed

The prosecution document says the beginnings of the Madrid attack could be seen in the merger in June 2001 of al Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad terrorist groups, "creating an organization capable of coordinating a worldwide network that leads and provides cover for the actions of numerous Sunni Islamic extremist groups deployed from Europe to Southeast Asia."

The new organization did not have a traditional hierarchical structure, but instead was responsible for the "infrastructure, financing, logistics of terrorist activity, [and] providing training camps to prepare 'holy warriors' in tactics of war," the prosecution document says.

Local terrorist groups, it adds, "have sufficient autonomy to decide the form and method of the attacks, but following the 'fatwas' or decrees of their spiritual leader or taking ideological inspiration from the principles of radical Islamic fundamentalism."

The attacks in Spain took root, the document said, after various al Qaeda operatives were arrested in Spain in late 2001, following the September 11 attacks in the United States.

The plot gained momentum after Spain sent troops to Iraq in support of the U.S.-led coalition there in 2003, the prosecution said.

But the "final trigger" was Osama bin Laden's message broadcast on October 18, 2003, on Al-Jazeera TV, which mentioned Spain, along with some other Western countries, as targets to attack, says a prosecution document from last November.

"[That] set in motion the planning and execution activity of the attack [in Madrid], setting the date and beginning to prepare all of the logistics and infrastructure necessary to carry it out," another prosecution document says.

The technique of using cell phones as timers and connected to the explosives was a method taught at a terrorist training camp in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, a prosecution document says.

One previous conviction

To date only one person, who was then 16 years old, has been convicted in the attacks. He was the only minor charged in the case. In November 2004 the Spanish youth pleaded guilty to transporting explosives stolen from a mine in northern Spain and of collaborating with a terrorist group.

Of the 191 train bomb fatalities, 142 were from Spain and 49 were from 16 other nations, including immigrants from Latin America and Eastern Europe, a prosecution document says.

The injured came from Spain and 33 other nations, according to the March 11 Victims Association group, which represents more than 900 people who were wounded or are survivors of the deceased. (Watch how victims are still suffering after the attack)

Many Spaniards believe the attacks were a consequence of then-Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's decision to send Spanish troops to Iraq in support of the U.S.-led coalition there. Aznar has maintained that in doing so, he was just standing firm against international terrorism alongside a close ally.

Just three days after the train bombings, Spaniards ousted the conservatives in previously scheduled national elections.

Aznar was not running for a third term, but his hand-picked conservative Popular Party successor lost to a Socialist, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who quickly withdrew Spain's troops from Iraq after becoming prime minister.

The coordinated bombings of four trains on March 11, 2004 in Madrid killed 191 people.





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