Spain Opens Trial of Al-Qaida Suspects

MADRID, Spain -- Twenty-four suspected members of an al-Qaida cell - mostly of Syrian and Moroccan origin - go on trial in Spain on Friday, accused of using the country as a staging ground to plot the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The main suspect is Imad Yarkas, a 42-year-old father of six who, under the guise of a used-car salesman, is alleged to have overseen a cell that provided logistical cover for Sept. 11 plotters like Mohamed Atta, believed to have piloted one of the two airliners that destroyed the Twin Towers.

The trial marks the culmination of an eight-year probe by anti-terrorism magistrate Baltasar Garzon that revealed how Muslim militants leading quiet lives as businessmen, laborers or waiters operated freely in Spain for years, allegedly recruiting men for terrorist training in Afghanistan, preaching holy war and laundering money for al-Qaida operations.

The proceedings will make Spain only the second country in the world after Germany - another staging ground - to put Sept. 11 suspects on trial.

Two other suspects are also accused of helping plan the massacre - Moroccan Driss Chebli, 33, who allegedly helped Yarkas arrange a planning meeting in Spain in July 2001 attended by Atta and Sept. 11 coordinator Ramzi bin al-Shibh - and Syrian-born Ghasoub al-Abrash Ghalyoun, 39, who shot detailed video footage of the World Trade Center and other landmarks while visiting the United States in 1997.

Those tapes were eventually passed on to "operative members of al-Qaida and would become the preliminary information on the attacks against the Twin Towers," Garzon wrote in a Sept. 2003 indictment against the three men and 32 other suspects, including Osama bin Laden himself and other key members of al-Qaida. The indictment was later broadened to 41 people.

Under Spanish law, terrorism can be prosecuted here even if it is alleged to have been committed elsewhere if no court proceedings are underway in that country. Garzon argues he can also go after al-Qaida because the plot was partly hatched in Spain.

However, Yarkas's lawyer, Jacobo Teijelo, insists Spain has no jurisdiction to try the case because proceedings are under way in the United States - against French citizen Zacarrias Moussaoui, the only person indicted in America over Sept. 11.

He says Spanish prosecutors "have no solid evidence of anything."

Since he was first jailed in Nov. 2001, Yarkas, a Syrian-born Spaniard, has lost 30 kilos (66 pounds) and 10 cm (four inches) of height, Teijelo said. "He has shrunk. It is odd, but true."

Those standing trial are all in Spanish custody. The rest of the 41 men indicted are either fugitives or in custody in other countries.

Besides Yarkas and his two alleged accomplices, the other 21 men standing trial are charged with belonging to a terrorist organization, weapons possession or other offenses, but not specific Sept. 11 involvement. They include al-Jazeera journalist Tayssir Alouny, accused of belonging to al-Qaida.

The defendants were arrested in raids that began in Nov. 2001 as Garzon broke up a radical cell he said began taking shape in Spain in the mid-1990s.

The trial is being held under tight security at a trade fair pavilion because the National Court was deemed too small. It is expected to last two to four months.

Prosecutors have requested jail terms of almost 75,000 years each for Yarkas and the other two Sept. 11 defendants - 25 years for each of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the attack. Under Spanish law the maximum time they can serve for a terrorism conviction is 40 years.

The other defendants face jail terms ranging from nine to 27 years.