Spain Prepares for Madrid Bombing Trial

A trial is set to begin Thursday in Spain for 29 suspects facing charges stemming from the deadly Madrid train bombings of 2004. Past terrorism trials in Europe have produced mixed results.

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Those accused of the Madrid train bombings go on trial tomorrow in Spain. The defendants, mostly Moroccan immigrants, face charges of terrorist murder or attempted murder. Nearly 200 people died in the attacks and 1,800 others were injured.

As Jerome Socolovsky reports from Madrid, previous terrorism trials in Spain have not gone well for the prosecution.

(Soundbite of moving commuter trains)

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: Jesus Ramirez(ph) watches the commuter trains go by at a railway station in southern Madrid. On the morning of March 11th, 2004, he stepped onto one of these trains moments before it was ripped apart by terrorist bombs.

Mr. JESUS RAMIREZ (Madrid train bombing victim): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Look here, Ramirez says, while he folds down the back of his shirt collar. It reveals a scar from one of the many pieces of shrapnel still embedded in his body.

Mr. RAMIREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVKSY: I want to have faith in justice, he says. I want to think that the people who did this will pay for it in jail. I'm not asking for vengeance or a show trial.

This will be the biggest trial of Islamist militants ever held in Europe. Spanish prosecutors say the conviction of hundreds of Basque separatist militants over the years is proof that they know how to fight terrorism. But in more recent trials of Islamist militants, their record has been less than stellar.

(Soundbite of December, 2006 trial)

Unidentified Man (Judge): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: A judge calls a witness to the stand in a trial of six Algerians last December. They were accused of conspiring to attack a U.S. military base in Spain with chemicals and explosives.

Mr. SOUHIL KAOUKA (Defendant): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Defendant Souhil Kaouka said the powder that Spanish police found in their homes wasn't dangerous.

Mr. KAOUKA: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: It was detergent, he said. It was a pool cleaning product because we clean swimming pools, and we used a special detergent to clean to the mold. The FBI had told the prosecution that the powder could have been used to make homemade napalm. But the court dismissed the chemicals charge and the men were convicted of less serious offenses.

Spain's Supreme Court is currently hearing the appeal of another Algerian, Ahmed Brahim When he was arrested in 2002, authorities said he was an important al-Qaida financier who helped plan the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. By the time the case went to court four years later, those allegations had been dropped and he, too, was convicted on lesser charges, which he's now appealing.

Yet another case was that of Imad Yarkas a Syrian-born immigrant charged with helping to prepare the September 11th attacks. At the appeal, the prosecutors themselves asked the judges to dismiss the September 11th link. The defendant's 27-year sentence was reduced to 12 years.

Jose Luis Gonzalez Kusack(ph), a well-known professor of criminal law in Valencia, says Spanish anti-terrorism laws give prosecutors too much leeway.

Professor JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ KUSACK (Criminal Law, Valencia): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: It's not Guantanamo, obviously, but the difference is a question of degree, he says. Suspects can be arrested and held without access to a lawyer for up to five days. After an appearance before a judge, they can be placed in preventive custody without charge for up to four years. And the prosecution's evidence can be kept secret from the defense until the case is about to go to court.

Defense lawyers in the Madrid bombing trial are asking for a dismissal. They say their clients have been denied due process as a result of these measures. But it would be a controversial decision for the judges to throw out the case. Many people are looking to this trial to end the national trauma over the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

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