Three lead defendants in the 2004 Madrid train bombings were convicted of mass murder and other charges yesterday, but another accused ringleader was acquitted in the culmination of a politically divisive trial over Europe's worst Islamic terror attack.
Four other prime suspects received lesser sentences as Judge Javier Gomez Bermudez read out the verdicts in a hushed courtroom. There was heavy security outside, including bomb-sniffing dogs and police helicopters.
The backpack bomb attacks killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,800 on March 11, 2004.
The three lead suspects were each handed sentences that stretched into the tens of thousands of years. They include Jamal Zougam, a Moroccan convicted of placing at least one bomb on one of the trains, Emilio Suarez Trashorras, a Spaniard who is a former miner found guilty of supplying the explosives used in the attacks, and Osman Gnaoui, a Moroccan accused of being a right-hand man of the plot's operational chief.
But Rabei Osman, an Egyptian accused of helping orchestrate the attacks, was acquitted. Osman, who is in jail in Italy, had allegedly bragged in a wiretapped phone conversation that the massacre was his idea. But his defense attorneys argued successfully that the tapes were mistranslated.
Four other accused masterminds -- Youssef Belhadj, Hassan el Haski, Abdulmajid Bouchar and Rafa Zouhier -- were acquitted of murder but convicted of lesser charges including belonging to a terrorist organization. They received sentences between 12 and 18 years.
Six lesser suspects were also acquitted on all charges. Fourteen other people were found guilty of lesser charges like belonging to a terrorist group, bringing the total number convicted to 21 of the 28 defendants.
Most of the suspects are young Muslim men of North African origin who allegedly acted out of allegiance to al-Qaeda to avenge the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, although Spanish investigators say they did so without a direct order or financing from Osama bin Laden's terror network.
Bermudez said the probe had turned up no evidence of involvement by the Basque separatist group ETA, dismissing the initial argument of the conservative pro-US government in power at the time of the attacks. The theory is still embraced by many Spaniards.
The blasts targeting crowded, morning rush hour commuter trains traumatized Spain and arguably toppled its government -- the first time an administration that backed the US-led Iraq war was voted out of power.
That day of carnage, wailing sirens and cell phones going unanswered amid the wreckage of blackened, gutted trains is etched in Spain's collective memory and is now widely known as simply 11-M, much as the term 9/11 conjures up so much pain for Americans.
The sentences of thousands of years for lead suspects are largely symbolic because the maximum jail time for a terrorism conviction in Spain is 40 years. Spain has no death penalty or life imprisonment.