Madrid bombs suspect quotes pope


Feb 26, 2007

MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- An accused mastermind of the Madrid train bombings took the stand again Monday and strengthened his denial of any involvement in the attacks in March 2004 that killed 191 people, at one point seeming to compare himself with Pope Benedict XVI.

Rabei Osman el Sayed Ahmed, 35, alias Mohamed the Egyptian, was the first defendant to testify when the trial began February 15. At that time, he condemned the attacks and denied any link.

But his defense lawyer asked the court for time to study audio tapes of Italian police wiretaps of Ahmed in Milan in the spring of 2004, which show he boasted to an associate that the Madrid bombings were his "project."

On Monday, Ahmed, 35, under questioning from his lawyer, again denied involvement, while admitting he knew a few suspects in the attacks.

"I have no involvement with the people in these attacks. I am absolutely innocent," Ahmed testified.

Ahmed said the police had misinterpreted the content of his wiretapped conversations in Italy -- where an Italian court last November sentenced him to 10 years in prison for terrorist activities in a separate case - and he brought up Pope Benedict XVI's controversial remarks about Islam last September that sparked Muslim protests and a subsequent apology from the pope.

Ahmed asked the court why the pope himself could make comments that were misinterpreted, but that he, Ahmed, could not make comments which, he alleges, the police misinterpreted, regarding the claim that the Madrid bombings were "his project."

He denied, in his testimony, that the voice on the wiretapped conversation was his, or that he had ever said Madrid was "his project."

If convicted, Ahmed and six other prime defendants in the trial could each face sentences of about 38,000 years in prison, for mass murder, although none would serve more than 40 years, the maximum allowed under Spanish law, which does not permit the death penalty.

The trial against 29 defendants --- the seven prime defendants and 22 others accused of supporting roles, including one woman --- is due to last until the summer, with a verdict expected in the autumn.

About half of the 29 have testified already, all professing innocence of the charges against them.

But several defendants - while denying prior knowledge of the attacks against the four rush-hour morning commuter trains - have admitted in testimony some details to prosecutors about the events leading up to the bombings.

Last week, Moroccan defendant Othman El Gnaoui, 31 -- facing 24 years in prison if convicted of belonging to a terrorist group and supplying explosives -- admitted on the stand that a few weeks before the bombings, he accompanied another Moroccan, Jamal Ahmidan, from northern Spain to a rural dwelling east of Madrid where prosecutors say the bombs were assembled.

Prosecutors say Jamal Ahmidan - who blew himself up with six other prime suspects three weeks after the attacks when police closed in on their hideout in the Madrid suburb of Leganes- went to northern Spain in late February 2004 to receive explosives stolen from a mine and drove them to the Madrid rural dwelling --- near the village of Chinchon -- to make the bombs.

El Gnaoui testified that he accompanied Jamal Ahmidan on part of that trip from northern Spain to Madrid, but was unaware that explosives were being transported.

Jamal Ahmidan's cousin, Hamid Ahmidan --- facing 23 years in prison if convicted of collaborating with a terrorist group and drug trafficking - testified last week he was at the rural Chinchon lodging and saw Jamal Ahmidan working with something that had cables, but that when Jamal realized Hamid was watching, he quickly hid the item. But Hamid Ahmidan, 29, testified he didn't know what it was.

Prosecutors say the explosives stolen from the mine in northern Spain were taken to the Chinchon rural lodging, where the terrorists assembled the bombs using cell phones as timers, connected by cables to the explosives and shrapnel of nails and screws to inflict maximum bodily harm. The attacks killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,800 others.

Another defendant, Moroccan Rachid Aglif -- facing 23 years in prison if convicted of belonging to a terrorist group and supplying explosives - testified last week that he witnessed a conversation months before the attacks between Jamal Ahmidan and a Spaniard, Jose Emilio Suarez Trashorras, who discussed drug trafficking. But Aglif insisted he did not know that explosives were part of the deal.

Prosecutors say Suarez Trashorras, a prime defendant and accused as a "necessary cooperator" in the bombings, led a group of Spaniards who accepted drugs and cash as payment for stolen explosives that ended up in the hands of Islamic terrorists whom prosecutors say carried out the attacks.

Suarez Trashorras, 30, is due to testify in the coming days.