Suspected al-Qaida leader in Spain convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in Sept. 11 attacks | VailDaily.com

Suspected al-Qaida leader in Spain convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in Sept. 11 attacks

Associated Press

MADRID, Spain – A Syrian-born businessman was sentenced to 27 years in prison Monday after being convicted of leading a terrorist cell and conspiring to commit murder in the Sept. 11 attacks. But he was cleared of a more serious charge in Europe’s biggest trial of suspected al-Qaida members.Another man accused of helping one of the hijackers set up a key meeting was acquitted of being an accessory to murder but was convicted of collaborating with a terrorist group. Sixteen other people were convicted of collaborating with or belonging to the terror cell.A third suspect facing specific Sept. 11 charges over detailed video he shot of the World Trade Center and other U.S. landmarks was cleared of all charges.The three main suspects – Imad Yarkas, Ghasoub al-Abrash Ghalyoun and Driss Chebli – had been charged as accessories to murder and could have faced sentences of more than 74,000 years each – 25 for each of the 2,973 people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.Prosecutor Pedro Rubira had asked for what he called “exemplary sentences” to show terror could be fought in court, not with Guantanamo-style detention camps.Yarkas led a cell that raised money and recruited men for Osama bin Laden’s terror group and “turned itself over completely to fulfilling the sinister designs decided by al-Qaida,” according to the three-judge panel of the National Court.But it said, “the only thing proven is Yarkas’ conspiracy with the suicide terrorist” Mohamed Atta and other members of the al-Qaida cell based in Hamburg, Germany that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.Twenty-one other people also stood trial but on charges not directly related to Sept. 11. Of those, 16 were convicted of belonging to or collaborating with a terrorist organization and five were acquitted.One of the 16 was Tayssir Alouni, a correspondent for the Arab TV network Al-Jazeera. He was convicted of collaboration and sentenced to seven years in jail.”It was a black day in the history of Spanish justice,” Al-Jazeera news editor Ahmed al-Sheik said, adding that the verdict would be appealed.Alouni, a Syrian with Spanish citizenship, interviewed bin Laden shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. He pleaded innocent and denied ever belonging to al-Qaida.Yarkas’ lawyer, Jacobo Teijelo, also said it was “absurd” for the judges to convict his client of conspiracy because that charge would apply to a crime that was not committed.He said the judges, acting on what he called flimsy evidence such as wiretapped telephone conversations that they themselves said were at times obtained improperly, were desperate for some kind of conviction against Yarkas, given their lack of evidence for a murder conviction.But he said he was leaning against filing an appeal because it might be futile.Jose Luis San Pio, whose 26-year-old daughter Silvia was the only Spaniard killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, called the verdict a “surprise,” saying he had expected harsher sentences.The verdicts capped a 10-year investigation into Islamic militancy in Spain. After the attacks in 2001, Spanish police suspected many men they had been monitoring were involved. Judge Baltasar Garzon started making arrests two months after the attacks.Investigators say al-Qaida had deep roots in Spain and had operated freely in a country where poorly equipped police were focused more on the armed Basque separatist group ETA.But al-Qaida’s presence became painfully clear when their own country became a target with the March 11, 2004, bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people and were claimed by militants who said they acted on the terror group’s behalf in revenge for the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq.The probe into the Madrid attack was separate from the one that led to Monday’s verdicts, but investigators said the suspects overlap, with Yarkas having acted as mentor to some of those blamed for the Madrid bombings.Yarkas had been accused of arranging a meeting in the Tarragona region of Spain in July 2001 at which key Sept. 11 plotters – Atta and alleged coordinator Ramzi Binalshibh – met to decide last-minute details, including the date of the attacks.Chebli, a Moroccan, also was alleged to have helped set up the meeting. He was acquitted of being an accessory to murder but convicted of collaborating with a terrorist group and sentenced to six years.Ghalyoun, a Syrian-born Spaniard who was indicted over the video he shot during a trip to New York and several other U.S. cities in 1997, was acquitted of being an accessory to murder and of being a member of a terrorist organization.Garzon had said the videotapes were passed on to al-Qaida and amounted to the beginning of planning for the attacks on the U.S. Ghalyoun said he shot the tapes as an innocent tourist.The lesser sentence was the latest setback for European prosecutors trying Sept. 11-linked cases.In Germany, Moroccan Mounir el Motassadeq was convicted in 2003 but acquitted last month in a retrial, although he was found guilty of belonging to a terror cell.Judges in the German case complained they had been denied usable testimony from key Sept. 11 suspects in U.S. custody, and Spanish prosecutors faced a similar dilemma. They say U.S. officials rejected their request to question Binalshibh, who is in U.S. hands and was key to the Spanish investigation.The only person charged in the United States over Sept. 11, Zacarias Moussaoui, pleaded guilty in April.Vail, Colorado