MADRID, Spain – They'd been longing for justice for more than three years and instead got what they call a gut punch of acquittals and scaled-down convictions.
People who lost their spouses, parents or children in the Madrid train bombings of 2004 plan to appeal the verdicts and sentences handed down Wednesday in the trial over Europe's worst Islamic terrorist attack, which killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,800.
"It was like slap in our face. That is the word," Jesus Abril, who lost his 19-year-old son Oscar, said of the verdicts.
Of three accused Muslim extremists charged with masterminding the bombings, none was convicted of the main charge of mass murder, and one of these three, Egyptian Rabei Osman, was acquitted altogether.
Three men were convicted of murder and attempted murder and received long jail sentences — but they were not the alleged masterminds and were accused of playing lesser roles in the bombings.
Two other key suspects also facing murder charges were convicted of lesser charges of belonging to a terrorist organization. Rather than sentences of nearly 38,000 years sought by prosecutors, some got 12. And of nine Spaniards charged with supplying stolen dynamite for the attack in exchange for drugs and cash, five walked free. Altogether, of 28 people who stood trial, seven were acquitted.
Abril, a former teacher who is 54, attended every day of the trial, all 58 sessions, and came back Wednesday for the culmination. He and others who lost loved ones in that maelstrom of explosions and burning metal on March 11, 2004 could not believe what they were hearing from Judge Javier Gomez Bermudez of the National Court as he read out the verdicts.
"Some of us were crying, hysterical, angry. Others were speechless," Abril said in an interview Thursday. "The general response was to think how easy, how cheap it is to kill in Spain."
Abril represents the March 11 Association of Terrorism Victims. Its president, Pilar Manjon, whose 20-year-old son died that day as he rode a train to his engineering classes, called the verdicts and sentences weak.
"I don't like it that murderers are going free," she said Wednesday.
The verdict handed down by a three-judge panel after a nearly five-month trial said that the Muslim suspects who stood trial, along with seven suspected ringleaders who blew themselves up to avoid arrest, wanted to wage holy war.
It described them as "members of terrorist groups or cells which ... through the use of violence in all of its manifestations, seek to topple democratic regimes and eliminate the Christian-Western culture, replacing it with an Islamic state under the rule of the sharia, or Islamic law, in its most radical, extreme and minority interpretation."
The verdict said there was no evidence of involvement by the Basque separatist group ETA, as asserted by conservatives in power here at the time of the attacks — widely seen as a bid to keep Spaniards from thinking the government's support of the Iraq war made Spain a target for Muslim radicals. Socialists opposed to the war won general elections three days after the bombings.
Under Spanish law, Manjon's association was able to take part in the judicial probe and ensuing trial in a sort of friend-of-the-court capacity, requesting its own sentences for suspects and questioning them on the stand. It plans to appeal at least some of the verdicts before the Supreme Court.
For now the association will study the 700-page ruling with lawyers, and eventually decide what specific decisions to appeal, depending on where there might be a decent chance of winning, Abril said.
"Some of the suspects, who we thought would get the maximum punishment, received sentences that are just short of laughable," Abril said.
He added however that the Madrid survivors feel lucky to have even seen the case go to trial and see at least some people convicted. "Other victims of terrorist attacks and in other countries don't have this," he said.
Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said Thursday he believes the sentence is a good one because of eight main suspects facing murder charges, only one — the Egyptian, Osman, who prosecutors say had bragged the massacre was his work — was acquitted outright.
Three more of the eight were convicted of murder, and the other four will also go to prison, albeit on lesser charges.
Perez Rubalcaba said Spain managed to stage the world's biggest and most complex trial after an Islamic terror attack and he plans to meet with European colleagues to discuss what Spain learned along the way.
But he said he understands if victims feel shortchanged and want to appeal.
"The courts have made an effort to do their job, which is to offer victims some kind of reparation, because unfortunately at this time there is little else we can offer," he said.