MADRID, Spain – Concluding Europe’s largest trial to date of alleged al-Qaida militants, a Spanish tribunal Monday convicted 18 Muslim immigrants of terrorism-related charges, among them a purported ringleader found guilty of conspiring to plan the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
It was a rare conviction of anyone associated with the 2001 assault on New York and Washington. But in a stinging blow to efforts here and abroad to prosecute terrorism cases, the court dismissed the most serious charges before it: that three of the defendants were accomplices to murder in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Among those convicted was the Al-Jazeera television correspondent in Spain, who was sentenced to seven years. Six of the 24 defendants were acquitted of all charges.
The “mega-trial,” as it was known in Spain in part because of the number of defendants and potential reach, was seen as an important test of the ability of a democracy to investigate alleged Islamic terrorists in its midst and bring them to justice without sacrificing civil rights. The results are mixed.
Chief prosecutor Eduardo Fungairino said Monday’s convictions confirmed the Spanish judiciary’s contention that it is better to fight terrorism through the legal system than through “wars and detention camps.” Still, the penalties handed down Monday for many of the defendants fell far short of what prosecutors had sought.
Only three of the 24 defendants were accused of being accomplices to the Sept. 11 attacks, and prosecutors asked all three be given sentences of 74,000 years – 25 years for each of the nearly 3,000 people killed. The court threw out those charges, citing lack of evidence.
Instead, the key defendant, Syrian-born Spanish citizen Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder for his contacts with Mohamed Atta, one of the men who piloted a hijacked airliner into the World Trade Center. Barakat had been accused of arranging a meeting near the Spanish city of Tarragona in July 2001 where Atta is believed to have finalized his plans to attack New Nork and government sites in Washington.
Barakat also was alleged to be the head of an al-Qaida cell in Spain dedicated to promoting worldwide jihad and recruiting young European Muslims for the cause. Like all 24 defendants in the “mega-trial,” he maintained his innocence throughout.
The court sentenced Barakat to 15 years for the conspiracy role and an additional 12 years for being the leader of a terrorist group.
One of the other men accused of involvement in Sept. 11, Moroccan-born Driss Chebli, was cleared of the murder-related charges and instead will be jailed for six years for collaborating with a terrorist group.
The third man accused of being accomplices to murder, Ghasoub Abrash Ghalyoun, was acquitted of all charges and freed. Ghalyoun, a Syrian-born Spaniard, had been accused of making a videotape of potential targets like the World Trade Center; he maintained it was a video of his vacation.
The other convicted defendants received sentences from six to 11 years for collaborating with or belonging to a terrorist organization.