Madrid bombers 'were inspired by Bin Laden address'

The seven suspects accused of masterminding the Madrid train bombings of 11 March 2004 could face jail sentences of 38,000 years each.

The state prosecutor, Olga Sanchez, said the suspected ringleaders should face prison terms of 30 years for each of the 191 victims who died in the tragedy, and 18 years for each of the 1,820 who were injured in the multiple blasts. The combined sentence requested amounts to 38,490 years for each suspect.

Her report says the attacks were inspired by a televised message by the al-Qa'ida leader Osama bin Laden in October 2003, in which he threatened prompt and severe actions against the countries that participated in the war in Iraq, including Spain and Britain. In the speech transmitted by al-Jazeera television Bin Laden said: "We reserve the right to respond at the opportune time and place in all the countries that are participating in this unjust war, in particular United Kingdom, Spain [and other countries]".

Among the chief suspects is the Moroccan shopkeeper Jamal Zougam who is accused of supplying the mobile phones used as detonators in 10 rucksack bombs that destroyed four commuter trains. Mr Zougam claims he had nothing to do with the plot but the court indictment says witnesses saw him on the trains that were later bombed.

The idea of mounting an attack on Spanish soil was formed in November 2001 when the man considered to be al-Qa'ida's leader in Europe, Eddin Barakat Yarkas, alias Abu Dahdah, and other al-Qa'ida members were detained in Spain after the 11 September attacks, the prosecution argues.

Keen support for the invasion of Iraq by the conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar further highlighted Spain as possible target. Bin Laden's televised message accelerated efforts to obtain explosives, vehicles and safe houses for the attack, prosecution sources say.

The other six main suspects mentioned in the indictment are the Moroccans Basel Ghalyoun, Abdelmajid Bouchar, Youssel Belhadj and Hassan el-Haski; the Spaniard Emilio Trashorras is accused of supplying the dynamite. Another top suspect is the Egyptian Rabei Osman, currently in detention in Milan, where a court yesterday sentenced him to 10 years' jail on charges of international terrorism. Osman, who is accused of having bragged that the train bombings were his idea, is expected to be extradited to face trial in Spain.

The sentence petition underlines the enormous gravity of the case. Europe's worst terror attack traumatised Spain. But none of the accused will serve more than 40 years under Spanish law, and some of the suspects accused of lesser involvement in the attacks will walk free after just four.

Seven alleged ringleaders -- including the ideological mastermind, the Tunisian Serhan Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet - blew themselves up three weeks after the train bombings when police laid siege to their apartment hideout in the Madrid suburb of Leganes. One policeman died in the explosion.

The prosecutor's office will call on 134 witnesses and 67 experts, including forensic doctors and policemen, during the trial which is expected to begin next spring, a court spokesman said.

While the bombers may have been inspired by Bin Laden, a two-year investigation into the attacks has found no evidence that al-Qa'ida helped plan, finance or carry out the bombings, or even knew about them in advance. Those who invented the new kind of rucksack bomb used in the attacks are said to have been taught in training camps in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, under instruction from members of Morocco's radical Islamist Combat Group.

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