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Mixed bag in Madrid ‘mass-murder’ verdict

Madrid, Oct. 31 (AP): Three main suspects in Europe’s worst-ever Islamic terror attack were found guilty of mass murder in the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings and were sentenced today to tens of thousands of years in prison.

But the verdict by Spain’s national court was a mixed bag for prosecutors, who saw four other top suspects come away with lesser convictions and an accused ringleader acquitted altogether.

Observers say the court may have been gun-shy after a number of high-profile terror cases in recent years were overturned on appeal.

Victims of the attacks, which killed 191 people and injured more than 1,800, said they were shocked and saddened by the court’s decision, which they saw as far too lenient.

“The verdict seems soft to us,” said Pilar Manjon, whose 20-year-old son was killed in the blasts and who has become a leader of a March 11 victims’ association. “I don’t like it that murderers are going free.”

Three lead suspects — Jamal Zougam, Othman Gnaoui and Spaniard Emilio Suarez Trashorras — were convicted of murder and attempted murder and received sentences ranging from 34,000 to 43,000 years in prison, although under Spanish law the most time they can spend in jail is 40 years. Spain has no death penalty or life imprisonment.

Zougam and Gnaoui are both Moroccans, the first convicted of placing at least one bomb on one of the trains, and the latter of being a right-hand man of the plot’s operational chief. Trashorras, a Spaniard, is a former miner found guilty of supplying the explosives used in the attacks.

One of the trial’s biggest surprises was the complete acquittal of Rabei Osman, an Egyptian already jailed in Italy in connection with the bombings. Italian authorities said Osman bragged in tapped Arabic-language phone conversations that he was the brains behind the Madrid plot, but translations of the taped conversations by two sets of Spanish translators indicated Osman’s comments were more nuanced and did not amount to a confession.

“We believe justice has been done,” Endika Zulueta, a lawyer for Osman, said.

Osman watched the Spanish proceedings on a videoconference link from the Justice Palace in Milan. The Europa Press news agency reported that he broke down in tears and shouted “I’ve been absolved! I’ve been absolved!” following the Spanish verdict.

Four other top suspects — Youssef Belhadj, Hassan el Haski, Abdulmajid Bouchar and Rafa Zouhier — were acquitted of murder but convicted of lesser charges including belonging to a terrorist organisation. They received sentences of between 10 and 18 years.

Fourteen others were found guilty of lesser charges and six others accused of lesser crimes were acquitted.

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