MADRID — A Spanish court Wednesday convicted 21 men in the 2004 bombings of Madrid's train system, the deadliest terrorist attack in continental Europe, but acquitted an Egyptian national whom authorities once touted as the mastermind.
Most of the 28 defendants, including two others originally accused of planning the bombings, were given sentences considerably lighter than those sought by prosecutors, angering survivors and families of the dead.
The mixed verdicts, contained in a 700-page ruling and announced in a heavily guarded courtroom on Madrid's outskirts, cap a case that exposed the workings of Islamic terrorist networks in the heart of Europe and foreshadowed attacks in London and elsewhere.
A total of 191 people were killed and nearly 2,000 injured when explosives hidden in backpacks ripped through four commuter trains during morning rush hour on March 11, 2004.
The investigation eventually revealed a "franchise" of Islamic militants, inspired by Al Qaeda but who originated in the Maghreb region of northern Africa. They had lived and worked in Spain for years, sometimes on the crime-ridden fringes of society but more or less blended with the local community. They became actors in a new, more destructive kind of terrorism in a country long accustomed to the violence of Basque separatists.
The trial, which started in February, reminded Spaniards of their vulnerability to attack. It was used as a political lightning rod in a bitter fight between the leftist government, elected just days after the bombings, and the ousted right-wing party.
Three defendants, two Moroccans and a Spaniard accused of supplying explosives, were convicted of mass murder and sentenced to tens of thousands of years in prison. Under Spanish law, however, they will serve no more than 40 years. Spain has neither a death penalty nor life imprisonment.
Eighteen other defendants were found guilty of lesser charges, including membership in a terrorist organization. The rest were acquitted.
When the acquittals were read, gasps filled the courthouse, packed with survivors, relatives and scores of journalists. Several relatives emerged weeping. They said they were furious and disappointed.
"I do not like that murderers are being let loose," said Pilar Manjon, whose 20-year-old son was killed in the bomb blasts and who now leads a victims group.
"This is not about reprisals or vengeance," added Jesus Rodriguez, who lost most of his hearing when he was trapped in a flaming train, "but society needs a solution, and this has not been made clear."
Perhaps the most startling acquittal for some was that of Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, once described as a mastermind of the attack. He is now in an Italian prison and listened to the verdict by teleconference. He is serving an eight-year sentence after being convicted of belonging to a terrorist organization. Endika Zulueta, Ahmed's attorney, argued that much of the evidence collected in Spain against his client was questionable. The case against Ahmed relied heavily on wiretaps conducted by Italian investigators that captured conversations that may have been translated incorrectly, Zulueta maintained.
In one of those conversations, investigators said, Ahmed claimed the Madrid bombings as his project. Other testimony suggested he was a braggart who played a minor role.
With the exception of Ahmed, defendants Wednesday sat in the courtroom behind bullet-proof glass.
During the trial, 90,000 pages of indictment, charges and supporting documents were amassed. Hundreds of witnesses and experts were called to testify, including senior intelligence agents whose faces were concealed.
Still, the three-judge National Court panel failed to establish "intellectual authors" behind the bombings, noting that seven suspected ringleaders killed themselves in April 2004, detonating a bomb as police moved in on their suburban apartment.
Two Moroccans received maximum penalties: Jamal Zougam, seen by witnesses on a train that blew up, was convicted of planting at least one bomb and of belonging to an Islamic terrorist cell; Othman Gnaoui was convicted of transporting explosives to Madrid and assisting the operational chief of the conspiracy, who was killed in the apartment explosion.
Emilio Suarez Trashorras of Spain, who once worked as a miner, was found guilty of supplying the explosives used in the bombs and received a similar sentence.
Four other major suspects -- Youssef Belhadj, Hassan Haski, Abdelmajid Bouchar and Rafa Zouhier -- were acquitted of murder but condemned to up to 18 years on lesser charges, including belonging to a terrorist organization.
Much of the evidence was circumstantial, making stronger convictions more difficult, several analysts said.
Lead judge Javier Gomez Bermudez, speaking for a unanimous court, also dismissed definitively the notion that Basque separatists of the ETA movement were involved in the bombings.