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Spain trial of 24 muslims with 911 links

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Spain opens trial of 24 with alleged al-Qaeda, 9/11 links

MADRID, Spain (AP) Twenty-four Muslim men went on trial Friday as suspected members of an al-Qaeda cell accused of using Spain as a staging ground to plot the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The defendants mostly of Syrian and Moroccan origin sat on wooden benches in a cramped, bullet-proof chamber at a makeshift courtroom as the trial before a three-judge panel got under way.

Spain is only the second foreign country after Germany to try suspects in the suicide airliner attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. (Related: PDF of Spain's indictment for the trial)

The main suspect is Imad Yarkas, a 42-year-old father of six who, under the guise of being 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 World Trade Center.

Before the trial began, police with submachine guns stood guard as vans brought the handcuffed defendants to the courthouse, unloading them behind a tall iron fence and escorting them into the squat, red-brick building on the outskirts of Madrid, which has been specially adapted for the trial.

A police helicopter circled low overhead, and agents with bomb-sniffing German shepherd dogs searched shrubs in a park across the street.

The trial is the culmination of an eight-year investigation by anti-terrorism magistrate Baltasar Garzon, which determined that 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-Qaeda operations.

Two other suspects also are accused of planning the attacks. Moroccan Driss Chebli, 33, allegedly helped Yarkas arrange a July 2001 meeting in Spain attended by Atta and Sept. 11 coordinator Ramzi bin al-Shibh. Syrian-born Ghasoub al-Abrash Ghalyoun, 39, made 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-Qaeda and would become the preliminary information on the attacks against the Twin Towers," Garzon wrote in a September 2003 indictment against the three men and 32 other suspects, including Osama bin Laden himself and other key members of al-Qaeda.

The other 21 on trial are charged with terrorism offenses but are not directly linked to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The three judges sat in front of a long row of cardboard boxes containing some of the 100,000 pages of documents accumulated over eight years of investigation leading up to the proceedings.

During one break for a procedural question, the defendants chatted animatedly, smiled and appeared to be waving at someone through a wall of frosted glass on one side of the chamber.

Al-Jazeera journalist Tayssir Alouny, the only one of the 24 defendants who is out on bail, was allowed to leave the bulletproof chamber because he has a heart condition. He sat in the main part of the courtroom.

Yarkas, accused cell leader, had been scheduled to testify first but instead it was Luis Jose Galan, the only native-born Spaniard among the 24 people on trial. He is accused of weapons possession and belonging to al-Qaeda but not specific involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Under questioning from the prosecutor he acknowledged knowing some of the defendants on trial and fugitives indicted in the case but said it was only from going to the same mosques as they did in Madrid.

Galan called the post Sept. 11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban unjustified and said "Muslims are not terrorists."

"All we want is to live in peace," he said.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

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