Madrid bombs 'mastermind' cleared by court

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The Independent Online

Four terrorist ringleaders of the Madrid train bombings were sentenced to thousands of years in jail today for the murder of the 191 victims.

But a fifth, an Egyptian who apparently bragged that he masterminded the operation, was cleared of all charges at the end of Europe's biggest Islamic terror trial.

The Spanish court convicted 21 of the 28 accused of being involved in the bombings of four packed commuter trains during the morning rush hour on March 11 2004.

The day of carnage was etched in Spain's memory and became known simply as 11-M, much as the term 9-11 is used to describe the New York attacks.

The supposed mastermind Rabei Osman ,35, was accused of boasting during a tapped phone conversation that the attacks, which also injured more than 1,800, were his idea.

Osman is being held in an Italian jail on other terrorism charges and watched his acquittal in today's court hearing via video.

Judge Javier Gomez Bermudez read out the verdicts in the a hushed Madrid courtroom, with armed police and bomb detector dogs on guard outside.

Most of the suspects were young Muslim men of North African origin accused of being al Qaida members seeking "revenge" for the deployment of Spanish troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They included nine Spaniards, including one woman charged with supplying stolen dynamite used in the explosions. All 28 insisted they were innocent.

Prosecutors were seeking sentences of up to 38,976 years each for the eight lead defendants: 30 years for each of the people killed in the attacks, 18 years for each of the wounded, plus more time for other terrorism-related charges.

But they could eventually be freed as Spain has a maximum prison sentence limit of 40 years.

Seven suspected ringleaders of the attacks, including the operational chief, blew themselves up in a house outside Madrid three weeks after the massacre as special forces who tracked them via cell phone traffic moved in to arrest them.

Conservatives in power at the time of the attacks initially blamed Basque separatists, even as evidence of Islamic involvement emerged.

This led to charges of a cover-up to deflect attention away from the government's support of the Iraq war, and in elections three days after the bombings the conservatives lost to the opposition Socialists.