Spain: Bomb Convictions Help Govt.

With one blow, a three-judge panel at the Spanish High Court today convicted 21 people for the 2004 terror attacks on its commuter trains and undermined a three-year-old political conspiracy theory about the Al Qaeda-inspired violence.

After a two-year investigation and a nearly five-month-long trial that included about 750 witnesses, the court ruled unanimously to sentence 21 of the 29 defendants to prison terms ranging from three to 40,000 years for various counts of homicide, attempted homicide, belonging to and collaboration with a terrorist group, falsifying documents and trafficking in explosives.

The largest prison terms went to Moroccans Jamal Zougam and Othman el Gnaoui and Spaniard Emilio Suárez Trashorras. Zougam and El Gnaoui received nearly 40,000 years in prison for the 191 people killed and 1,800 injured when 10 backpack bombs exploded on four Madrid trains on March 11, 2004. Suárez, who supplied the explosives from a mine in the Asturias region of Northern Spain, received about 31,000 years in prison. Despite the long prison sentences, Spanish law states that those convicted of terrorist crimes can spend no more than 40 years behind bars.

Eight of the defendants were found not guilty of the accusations, the majority linked to the theft of explosives from Asturias. Notably, the court absolved Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, a.k.a. "The Egyptian," who was accused of being one of the attacks' masterminds. He is currently serving a prison term in Italy for terror crimes. Nevertheless, most of the accused are considered secondary figures in the plot, as the seven suspected ringleaders blew themselves up when police surrounded their Madrid apartment about three weeks after the blasts. According to the police, the North African perpetrators were inspired by Al Qaeda but had no direct links to the terror group.

Today's verdict marks the close of Spain's second major Al Qaeda-related trial since the attacks. In September 2005, the High Court convicted 18 men of collaborating with or recruiting for Al Qaeda. (The court later absolved three men on appeal.) One of the convicted, known as Abu Dahdah, was considered Al Qaeda's top man in Europe and was linked to the Hamburg cell that committed the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington seven years ago.

More cases are pending. On Oct. 22 a Spanish judge indicted 22 people on charges of belonging to or collaborating with a cell suspected of recruiting fighters to send to Iraq. A day later, police arrested six North Africans charged with belonging to an international network that promotes jihad on the Internet and recruits volunteers.

Analysts say that the train-bombing verdict will do little to deter future attacks, but Spain's vigorous terror prosecutions have dispelled the "terrorism appeaser" label that the White House and commentators applied after the newly installed prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who withdrew Spanish soldiers from Iraq in mid-2004.

On a local level, however, Wednesday's ruling means more than points on a terror-fighting scoreboard. The decision serves as judicial closure to a political debate that has divided Spaniards since the March 11 bombings: whether the armed Basque separatist group ETA participated in the attacks. "There is no evidence to support the alternative theory from the defense," presiding judge Javier Gómez Bermúdez said of the ETA hypothesis in his verdict. The opposition People's Party--which had backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and was voted out of office three days after the blasts--has always insisted that it was the ETA rather than radical Islamists behind the attacks. Many believe it lost the postbombing vote because Spaniards believed the party was deliberately trying to mislead them.

The PP has since argued that President Zapatero's Socialists conspired to cover up ETA's participation in the attacks for its own electoral gain. Defense lawyers for those accused in the March 11 bombing trial used these conspiracy theories to try to cast doubt on their clients' involvement in the attacks--earning several reprimands from the presiding judge.

"The PP knows perfectly well that ETA had nothing to do with it," said Jorge Verstrynge, a political science professor at Madrid's Complutense University. "If they hadn't used the ETA conspiracy they would have used another. But it has caused a lot of division within the party, and I know a lot of people inside the PP who are quite sick of that trio [party leaders Mariano Rajoy, Angel Acebes and Eduardo Zaplana]." Verstrynge was the party leader of what later became the PP, but left in 1986 after a dispute. He then joined the Socialist party but has no official position.

The court's rejection of the ETA hypothesis could hurt the PP as national elections are due in March, especially because it considers the case unresolved. Following the verdict, PP leader Rajoy told the press that the party "supports any other investigation." The PP's dispute of a High Court ruling is likely to sit poorly with Spanish voters--most of whom have already shown at the polls that they reject that theory.