Deep divisions over Madrid verdict

Some victims' families feel jilted by high court's decision Wednesday on the March 2004 train attack.

A mixed verdict in the trial of 28 suspects in the 2004 Madrid train bombings threatens to underscore the deep divisions that have opened in Spain since the attack, which killed 191 people and prompted a rapid shift in Spain's political course.

Spain's National Court found 21 of the accused guilty of participating in or abetting the bomb attacks that tore through Madrid train stations on March 11, 2004. Three lead suspects, two Moroccan and one Spanish, were convicted of murder and attempted murder and given sentences of more than 30,000 years each.

But the court also acquitted eight suspects, including the alleged mastermind, Egyptian Rabei Osman, who is in jail in Italy on other terrorism charges. Many of the other accused received sentences much lighter than expected.

For Raul Castilla, whose father died in the bombings, the ruling felt like an assault. "In this country, they let assassins loose on the streets."

Others, however, saw the trial as a successful imposition of justice. Unlike the United States, Spain did not have to draft new legislation to deal with Islamist terrorists. "We already had an efficient legal framework in place because of [Basque separatist group] ETA; we had the right laws to confront terrorism," says Rogelio Alonso, terrorism expert at Madrid's King Juan Carlos University. "This trial shows that those laws work."

The 10 bombs set on four commuter trains early March 11 injured nearly 2,000 people in addition to killing 191.

Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose party swept into office after the bombings, said that "justice was rendered today." Earlier in the week, he had expressed hope the verdict would "give a definitive answer to those who have put forth ... despicable doubts about March 11."

Debate over the justice of the sentence is already filling the Spanish media and may broaden the fissures in Spanish society that are the bombing's most dramatic legacy.

In the eyes of many Spaniards, the attacks paved the way for Prime Minister Zapatero's unexpected victory over the ruling conservative Popular Party. It was the first time an administration that backed the US-led war in Iraq was voted out of power. Many of the suspects allegedly were motivated by loyalties to Al Qaeda and anger at Spanish troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two weeks after the attack, seven of the suspected terrorists blew themselves up in a suburban apartment. Today, the court confirmed that those seven were "material authors" of the attack and that they constituted a "jihadist cell."

Of the three lead suspects, Jamal Zougam was convicted of being a material author, Othman Gnaoui was convicted of being a right-hand man to the operational chief, and Emilio Suaréz Trashorros was condemned for his role in stealing dynamite used in the attack.

Prosecutors had also demanded nearly 39,000 years for Hassan el-Haski, charging him with being the suspected head in Europe of the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group, and fleeing Spain a few days before the attacks. But Mr. Haski received only 15 years. Seven of those on trial today – one suspect had already been exculpated – were absolved altogether.

Minutes after the verdict was concluded, Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy released a statement that leaves the door open to more questions that could shape debate ahead of national elections slated for March 2008. "The accused have been condemned as intellectual authors" of the attacks, he said, adding that his party would support another investigation.

Leaders of the Popular Party have advanced conspiracy theories that implicated the Basque separatist group ETA in the bombings, and accused the government of covering up related evidence. Some charge that misleading statements about who was responsible for the attacks was a factor in the Socialist victory.

The court firmly rejected any link with the Basque terrorist group. After explaining why the evidence pointed to a single jihadist cell, lead judge Javier Gómez Bermudez was clear: "There is no proof that points to ETA."

As they crowded into the basement of a courtroom Wednesday to await the verdict, emotions among the family members of the victims ran high. Tears came easily, as did anger when some learned that there wasn't room for all of them in the courtroom. Victims' rights activist Pilar Manjon, whose son was killed, tried to animate her colleagues. "We're going to await this sentence with joy," she told the room to applause. "This is our verdict."

But after the sentencing, several of the victims' family members expressed exhaustion as it appeared political battles over the bombings would continue. "It's not about reprisals or revenge," says Jesus Ramirez, vice president of the Association of Those Affected by March 11. "It's about the fact that Spanish society needs resolution. The verdict wasn't sufficiently clear." His organization will appeal the ruling.

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