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Trial Opens in Madrid for Train Bombings That Killed 191

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Sitting behind bulletproof glass, many suspects in the 2004 Madrid train bombings avoided looking at the victims' relatives as their trial opened. Some even turned their backs on them.

Nearly three years after the rush-hour bombings that killed 191 people and left more than 1,800 wounded, the trial of 29 defendants began Thursday with emotions running extremely high in a country still coming to grips with the attack.

Some relatives and survivors said they could barely bring themselves to be in the same room as the defendants, and some chose to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV in a separate room. A team of psychologists was on hand to assist grieving relatives and survivors after the session.

"I hope justice is rendered and that there is a worthy sentence," Pilar Manjon, president of an association of victims of the March 11, 2004 attack. Her 20-year-old son was killed in the bombings - the worst Islamic attack in Europe.

Of the defendants, Manjon said: "I will look them right in the eye. They destroyed my life but they will not destroy me."

The first defendant to testify, Rabei Osman, refused to answer any questions from prosecutors. Under questioning from his own attorney, the Egyptian then said he had nothing to do with the attack, despite wiretapped conversations in which he allegedly boasted he was the brains behind it.

"I never had any relation to the events which occurred in Madrid," he said in Arabic through a translator, adding that he condemned the bombings "unconditionally and completely."

Osman, who is accused of being one of three men who masterminded the attack, was arrested in Italy in June 2004. Italian prosecutors have said they tapped phone conversations in which he told an associate: "I'm the thread to Madrid, it's my work."

On the stand Thursday, Osman denied being a member of al-Qaida or any other Islamic extremist group, and said he knew other alleged members of the Madrid bombing cell only as acquaintances at a mosque in the Spanish capital.

The trial has ignited painful memories of what Spaniards consider the nation's most traumatic event since the 1930s civil war. Images of body bags and twisted train cars were replayed throughout the day on Spanish TV, a grim reminder of the devastation.

Some 100 experts and 600 witnesses are likely to be called during the trial, among them people whose lives were shattered by the blasts. Testimony is expected to last more than five months and a verdict is expected in late October.

Eighteen of the suspects watched Thursday's proceedings from the bulletproof chamber, while the other 11, who are out on bail, sat in the main section of the courtroom.

Seven lead defendants face possible jail terms of 30 years for each of the 191 killings and 18 years each for 1,820 attempted murders. However, under Spanish law, the maximum time anyone can serve for a terrorist conviction is 40 years. There is no death penalty in Spain.

Other defendants face lesser charges ranging from belonging to a terrorist organization to stealing explosives from a mine in northern Spain and passing them on to the bombers in exchange for money and drugs.

The trial marks the culmination of a lengthy probe which concluded the attack was carried out by a homegrown cell of Muslim extremists angry about the then-conservative Spanish government's support for the Iraq war.

The cell was inspired by al-Qaida but had no direct links to it, nor did it receive financing from Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization, Spanish investigators say.

Spanish authorities initially blamed the blasts on Basque separatists, despite evidence of Islamic radical involvement. This led to charges of a cover-up, and the current Socialist government was voted into power three days after the attack. The new leaders quickly brought Spain's troops home from Iraq.

The proceedings are being held under tight security at a trade fair pavilion because the premises of the National Court, which handles terrorism cases, were deemed too small. Spain has increased its terrorism alert level as a precaution.

(Copyright ©2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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