Europe's biggest trial against suspected followers of al-Qaeda, the Islamist terrorist network, ended its first week in Madrid with the 24 defendants vigorously protesting their innocence.

Syrian-born Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, the prime suspect in the trial and alleged leader of an al-Qaeda cell in Spain, told the court he condemned terrorism because “Islam does not allow it”. Mr Yarkas, who faces charges of mass murder for the September 11 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, denied helping to prepare a meeting of the attacks' conspirators in July 2001, when Mohamed Atta, one of the suicide pilots, travelled to Spain.

Mr Yarkas said he had not heard of al-Qaeda before his arrest in November 2001, even though police seized a book, magazines and a newspaper clipping about Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, from his home. Pressed about his relationships with some of Europe's most wanted Islamist militants, including Abu Qutada, a radical cleric under house arrest in Britain, Mr Yarkas said they were business acquaintances, friendships or people he had met through the mosque.

Ghasoub al-Abrash Ghalyoun, a property developer and one of three defendants charged with mass murder in connection with the September 11 attacks, said he “loved America”.

Pedro Rubira, the state prosecutor in the trial, accused Mr Ghalyoun of filming the Twin Towers in New York and other prominent buildings during a visit to the US in 1997 and that the video was subsequently passed on to other members of al-Qaeda. Mr Rubira noted the video filmed the Twin Towers from several angles and amounted to “preliminary information for the attacks”.

But Mr Ghalyoun said his visit to the US had been the “culmination of a childhood dream” and that he had filmed famous sites like any other tourist. He retracted parts of a 2002 statement in which he accused Mr Yarkas of agitating for jihad (holy war) at a Madrid mosque. Their testimony underscores the difficulties prosecutors face in trying to make the charges stick. The three judges who are overseeing the first trial against al-Qaeda in Spain must also examine more than 100,000 pages of written evidence, which form the core of the prosecution's case.

Lawyers for the defendants said most of the evidence was circumstantial and that prosecutors were seeking to prove “guilt through association”. They also said transcripts of wire-tapped phone conversations had been badly translated.

On the witness stand this week, Mr Yarkas was asked to explain one such conversation on August 27 2001 with Farid Hilali, a September 11 suspect being held in Britain. In it, Mr Hilali refers to aviation training, saying “they are giving very good classes” and adding, cryptically: “They have chopped off the head of the bird”. Prosecutors believe this referred to the imminent attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

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