Spain will on Thursday begin the trial of 29 people allegedly behind Europe’s worst terrorist attack, almost three years after bombs on four packed trains in Madrid killed 191 commuters and injured more than 1,700.
The bombing changed the course of Spanish politics and sparked a rift between the left and right over counter-terrorism policy.
Juan del Olmo, the investigating magistrate, said the March 11 2004 attack was carried out by a loosely-organised Spain-based cell, some members of which had been known to police. The bombers were inspired by Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda leader, and wanted to punish Spain for its involvement in the invasion of Iraq.
The trial, expected to last until mid-July, will examine more than 100,000 pages of evidence and bring at least 50 lawyers and as many as 650 witnesses to a converted trade-fair building on the edge of Madrid, where the trial is being held. State prosecutors will seek a total of 270,000 years in prison for the accused, though, in practice, nobody can serve more than 40 years under Spanish law.
Proceedings will be broadcast on a Madrid television station and on the internet, and journalists and victims’ families will be able to follow proceedings from rooms adjacent to the court. Simultaneous translation between Arabic and Spanish will be available.
Of the 29 accused, seven lead suspects of mainly North African origin are charged with organising the attack. The other 22 face charges of belonging to or collaborating with terrorist organisations and crimes including possession of explosives and falsification of documents.
But many of the attack’s authors will not appear in court. Seven of the alleged ringleaders blew themselves up to avoid capture as police closed in on them in April 2004. Another lead suspect, the state will argue, died in a suicide bomb attack in Iraq.
Only one native Spaniard, Jose Emilio Suárez Trashorras, is directly charged with the death of 191 people, based on evidence that he provided the explosives used in the attacks. A further eight Spaniards face related charges.
The trial looks set to snuff out a conspiracy theory linking Eta, the armed separatist groups, to the March 11 attacks. The theory has been promoted by the rightwing press and by some members of the Popular Party, which was unexpectedly ousted in elections three days after the bombing.
The surprise electoral defeat was partly blamed on the fact that Jose María Aznar, prime minister at the time, tried to cover up evidence that Islamic extremists were responsible.
Pilar Manjón, leader of a group representing relatives of more than 90 fatal victims and 500 injured, said: “Those that are standing trial are the ones. We will know part of the truth, but there are other truths as well that may never come out.”
The three judges hearing the case are expected to hand down their verdicts by October.
However, other trials involving al Qaeda suspects have underscored the difficulties of prosecuting members of an amorphous, global network.
The same court, also led by judge Javier Gómez Bermúdez, convicted 18 men of belonging to an al Qaeda cell in September 2005 but absolved the three main defendants of mass-murder in connection with the September 11 attacks. Six other defendants were acquitted.
Eduardo Garcia Peñas, spokesman for the defence, said this week there had been serious irregularities in the capture and detention of the accused. The secret nature of the investigation meant lawyers had little time to prepare their defence, he said. “The whole case is a disaster.”