MADRID, Spain, AP -Three men accused of helping to plot the Sept. 11 attacks waited to learn their fate Monday as Europe”s biggest trial of alleged al-Qaida members neared its finale.
The trial highlighted what investigators say was Spain”s role as a key staging ground, along with Germany, for the suicide airliner strikes against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. It is also the latest test of European prosecutors” so far unsuccessful efforts to convict Sept. 11 suspects.
The only person anywhere to be convicted over Sept. 11 — Moroccan Mounir el Motassadeq — was acquitted last month in a retrial in Germany. Judges cited U.S. failure to provide usable testimony from key al-Qaida suspects in U.S. custody, although he was found guilty of belonging to a terrorist cell that included key plotters.
Spanish prosecutors have faced a similar problem. They say U.S. authorities denied a request from the chief Spanish prosecutor, Pedro Rubira, to question alleged Sept. 11 coordinator Ramzi Binalshibh, who was arrested in Pakistan a year after the massacre and is now in U.S. hands.
Binalshibh is alleged to have met in the Tarragona region of northeast Spain in July 2001 with Mohamed Atta, believed to be one of the suicide pilots, for a last-minute planning session.
The lead suspect in the Spanish trial, alleged al-Qaida cell leader Imad Yarkas, 42, a Syrian-born Spaniard, is accused of having set up that meeting along with another suspect, Moroccan Driss Chebli, 33. Both denied knowing Binalshibh or Atta or having anything to do with the terror attacks.
They also condemned terrorism during the trial at a makeshift, high-security annex of the National Court, the tribunal that handles terrorism cases in Spain. Twenty-one other suspects — mainly of Syrian or Moroccan origin — face charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and other offenses, but not Sept. 11 planning. If convicted, they face sentences ranging from nine to 21 years.
The trial began in late April and ended in early July, and the three judges that oversaw it spent the last few weeks writing up a verdict that is expected to be some 400 pages long.
The third suspect facing specific Sept. 11 charges is Ghasoub al-Abrash Ghalyoun, another Syrian-born Spaniard, who was indicted over detailed video footage he shot of the World Trade Center and other landmarks during a trip to several American cities in 1997.
Judge Baltasar Garzon, the investigative magistrate who indicted the 24 suspects in 2003, has said the tapes were passed on to al-Qaida and amounted to the genesis of planning for the U.S. attacks. Ghalyoun said during the trial he shot the tapes as an innocent tourist.
After excerpts of the tapes were shown at the trial and Ghalyoun testified, Rubira released him on bail and said the video evidence seemed weak.
The head of Spain”s police branch specializing in Islamic terror, Rafael Gomez Menor, testified that he could not prove the videotapes were passed on to al-Qaida.
Gomez Menor also said he was convinced Yarkas knew about Sept. 11 plans but could not say what role Yarkas may have played.
For the three main defendants prosecutors are seeking jail terms of nearly 75,000 years — 25 years for each of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the attacks — as accessories to terrorist murder. Sentencing also takes place Monday.
The only person charged in the United States in connection with Sept. 11, Zacarias Moussaoui, pleaded guilty in April.
Under Spanish law, the most the suspects could serve for a terrorism conviction is 40 years. But requests for sentences of hundreds or thousands of years are common in Spain, which has no death penalty or life imprisonment.
Jose Luis San Pio, father of the only Spaniard to die in the Sept. 11 attacks, said he expects convictions on Monday but wishes no harm to the plotters.
"I have forgiven them," he said in an interview.
Pio”s 26-year-old daughter Silvia, who was seven months pregnant, was on the 92nd floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center when the terrorists struck.
"I know it is very difficult and it is almost like a miracle that I can see it that way, but I will recommend to those who have suffered a similar loss that they do their best to forgive those who caused that pain," he said.