MADRID — Spaniards call it a mega-trial, for its size and potential reach.
Twenty-four defendants. One hundred thousand pages of evidence. A prosecutor demanding prison sentences totaling many lifetimes.
The men in the dock -- almost all of them Muslim immigrants -- profess their innocence.
Europe's biggest trial to date of alleged Al Qaeda sympathizers has adjourned to await a verdict. Yet after enormous publicity surrounding the case involving the Sept. 11 attacks, critics contend that the prosecution is fatally flawed and conviction is not at all certain.
Spain's attempt to root out and bring to justice Islamic militants illustrates the debate raging across Europe: How do democracies eradicate extremist violence without sacrificing human and civil rights?
In European societies that have traditionally favored the preservation of liberties above all, the bombings in London and last year's attacks in Madrid have changed the playing field.
Britain plans legislation that criminalizes speech glorifying acts of violence. France and the Netherlands are tightening their loose borders. Last month, Italy approved new laws that expand police powers, allow forcible taking of DNA samples from suspects and create a "super-prosecutor" for terrorism. Spain is reluctantly monitoring mosques and registering imams.
The mega-trial in Madrid provides examples of possible recourses and likely pitfalls.
In it, three defendants stand accused of using Spain as a staging ground to help plot the Sept. 11 attacks. The other 21 defendants face a variety of terrorism-related charges, including belonging to an Al Qaeda cell.
A verdict in the three-month trial is expected in September.
Pedro Rubira, the lead state prosecutor, said the trial should serve as an example to world powers, showing that the judicial process was the way to fight terrorism.
"There are alternatives to what we are seeing each day in the fight against Islamic terrorism," Rubira said in his summation arguments. "We do not need detention camps, we do not need wars. What we need are precisely these kinds of trials that strengthen the rule of law."
Rubira told the three judges who will issue the verdict that "the world will be watching" their decision. "Be aware that what you do not only affects Spain but affects the whole world."
Defense attorneys, however, said the trial exemplified exactly the wrong approach in tackling terrorism. One called it an "inquisition," a word that packs a special wallop in the country where five centuries ago the Inquisition was used to punish Jews and Muslims. Another attorney, Jacinto Gil, who represents two of the accused, said Arabs in Spain were again being persecuted. Overzealous investigators who knew little about Arab culture conducted a reckless probe and alienated a Muslim community that otherwise might have been more cooperative in exposing bad elements, the lawyers said.
Coming in for the most criticism was Judge Baltasar Garzon, a magistrate with a reputation for grabbing headlines who has sought to indict none other than Osama bin Laden. Under the Spanish system, Garzon is an investigating judge who builds the case, compiles evidence and questions defendants before turning it over to trial. Garzon maintains that he is fighting for a broader, global form of jurisprudence, but his critics charge that his cases are politically motivated and sometimes rely on unfounded suspicions.
The lack of familiarity with Arab customs is a problem in many parts of Europe where radical Islamic cells have grown in recent years. In countries such as Spain, Italy and France that rely heavily on wiretaps for their investigations, law enforcement officials acknowledge a severe shortage of qualified Arabic-language translators.
In the mega-trial, the key defendant, Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, is alleged to be the head of the purported Spanish cell, and the strongest evidence against the Syrian-born Spaniard is based on wiretaps.
Barakat, known as Abu Dahdah, was overheard speaking to a militant in London in what investigators said was code about the Sept. 11 attacks, 15 days before they happened. His telephone number turned up in a Hamburg, Germany, apartment of Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers who crashed a jet into the World Trade Center in New York. Barakat and a codefendant, Driss Chebli, are accused of arranging a July 16, 2001, meeting in Spain for Atta and others to plan the U.S. attacks.
Rubira said in court documents that Barakat headed a cell known as the Soldiers of Allah dedicated to promoting global jihad and that he built a terrorist infrastructure and recruited young Muslims living in Spain, both legally and illegally, for training in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Pakistan.
Barakat, speaking in court on one of the last days of the trial, said the cell was "an invention" of the prosecution that targeted a community of mostly Syrian-born naturalized Spaniards united through friendship and family.