Twenty-four al-Qaeda suspects went on trial in Spain on Friday, three of them facing sentences of up to 60,000 years for allegedly helping to plot the Sept. 11, 2001 terror strikes on the United States.
An Al-Jazeera reporter who interviewed bin Laden is on trial
More than 100 armed police with dogs were deployed at the specially-built courtroom in a park on the outskirts of Madrid, where the defendants appeared inside a bullet-proof glass cubicle, as a helicopter circled overhead. Europe's largest ever trial of suspected al-Qaeda members was also protected by a jamming system to prevent the activation of a remote-controlled bomb.
Judge Angela Murillo Bordallo started by reading out the charges to the defendants, who include the suspected chief of the Spanish al-Qaeda cell, the Syrian Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, alias "Abu Dahdah."
Yarkas, 41, a stocky man with thinning hair (photo, below), sat in the back row of the defendants' box, smiling and greeting his co-accused. Prosecutors plan to demand that Yarkas and two others suspected of links to the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people, each be sentenced to more than 60,000 years in prison -- 25 years for each life lost. Yarkas's telephone number was found at the home in Hamburg, Germany, of an al-Qaeda member involved in the attacks.
Terrorist ringleader or businessman?
Eddin Barakat Yarkas of Syria is suspected of leading Spain's al Qaeda terrorist cell
During the trial's opening hearing, which ended at 1:40 p.m. (1140 UTC), prosecutors questioned a first suspect, Jose Luis Galan, a Spanish convert to Islam who has insisted he is "non-violent" and denied all links to al Qaeda. Galan admitted having been in close contact with Yarkas, but said he had no knowledge of a recruitment operation for Islamic militants which the Syrian is accused of running. He is accused of having established in Spain, from 1995, an indoctrination and recruitment unit for young Islamic militants, who were allegedly sent for training in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and Indonesia.
Yarkas, who has denied the charges and describes himself as a businessman, was not due to face questioning until Tuesday, according to court president Javier Gomez Bermudez.
The two other Sept. 11 suspects are Driss Chebli and Ghassub Al Abrash Ghaylun. Chebli allegedly organized a meeting in July 2001 in Tarragona on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, during which the details of the Sept. 11 attacks were finalized. Ghaylun for his part filmed the World Trade Center towers during a visit to the United States and allegedly gave the tapes to an al-Qaeda operative.
Some 120 journalists from about a dozen countries were covering the trial, which is expected to last two months, according to court officials.
The 24 people in court Friday are among a group of 41 people, including al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, indicted by Spanish anti-terrorist judge Baltasar Garzon. Under Spanish law defendants cannot be tried in absentia.
Journalist on trial
Tayssir Alluni, a Spanish resident and journalist of the Qatari Arabic language television channel Al-Jazeera, was also among the defendants in court. Alluni, who obtained an interview with bin Laden after the Sept. 2001 attacks, is accused of being an al-Qaeda member and of having had "close links for many years" with Yarkas.
Yarkas is believed to have asked Alluni to give money to al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan during a reporting assignment for Al-Jazeera. The alleged sums include $4,000 (3,050 euros) said to have been given in January 2000 to Mohamed Bahia, a suspected "messenger." Alluni denies the allegations and has questioned the impartiality of the Spanish judiciary saying on April 13 that he was "very pessimistic about the trial."
The Arab Commission for Human Rights (ACHR) has sent 12 observers, drawn from seven Arabic and non-Arabic countries, to report on the trial for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with a special focus on Alluni's case. "There are a lot of weak points in the Alluni dossier," said ACHR spokesman Haytham Manna.